Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

The Lying Relative

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on November 14, 2014

The Truth May Hurt For A Little While But A Lie Hurts Forever


Mom and dad have both passed away, leaving four siblings to deal with the modest estate. Two of them, number one and three, by birth order are charged with the job of joint trustees. The other two, numbers two and four, live in the same state, and are not sure why they were not “chosen”. Number four, Jorge, is my patient, age fifty-six and essentially happy with his current life, but becomes massively tearful when talking about his childhood. “The number of times my mother lied to me are so numerous, that I can hardly stand it,” Jorge says with the feeling as if he spoke to his mother yesterday, but, in fact, she has been dead for five years. “My nephew lived with my parents for an entire year and they never told me that was happening, until the end of the year, when they invited me to graduation, which was local. All that time I thought he was in another city. Can you imagine how awful I felt?” He says, with characteristic rage and shame, as if wondering what was wrong with him that his mother did not give him the courtesy of including him in family news. “You have so many complicated feelings about this withholding of information. It seems like you are both angry and self-denigrating about his omission.” I say, highlighting that at times he is more focused on his rage, whereas other times, he focuses on his shame and poor self-regard, resulting from being treated without respect.

Jorge, a successful university professor, flies off the handle, internally that is, when a student does not show him respect. “Sure, no one likes these millennials who think the world owes them everything, but I am particularly sensitive to their entitlement,” he tells me. “I had a student who told me that she did not like my assigned readings.  That was so painful for me.  A part of me knows that I cannot please everyone, and another part of me knows I should review the chapters I assign to make sure they are relevant for my students, but the biggest part of me felt hurt and disrespected, bringing back these terrible memories from my childhood, where nothing I said mattered. You know, when I saw the play Fiddler On The Roof, as a child, I said repeatedly, those two younger kids never spoke, no one knew what they were thinking, and that was just like me. So, now my sibs are dealing with the estate, and how can I trust anyone when my mother was so dishonest? Why did she pick her ‘favorites’ to deal with the estate? Did she just want to rub it in even deeper, how mean she could be?”

Jorge jumped from his class, to his childhood, to his current struggle with his family of origin, all without my prompting. This chain of associations, free association, if you will, helps me to understand how he is working at connecting past to present, and how his present classroom situation makes him feel bad about his past and how his. past, his childhood,  makes him feel bad about his present situation with the estate.  My job is to facilitate this narrative where he can come to understand his hurt, so that the student who criticizes his choice of readings, is seen as feedback, and not as deep dig into his psychic world. Likewise, the estate is bringing up for him, the dishonesty, and hence the anxiety he had in his childhood of  not knowing who to trust, but that does not mean that he cannot trust the other intimate people in his life. Not confusing past with present, or present with past, is challenging, as every experience brings up memories, and so it is hard to maintain perspective. The opportunity, however, to consider past and present together is the gift that Jorge gives himself. Dishonesty is a malignant experience in childhood. If Jorge were not mindful, he would grow up convinced that no one cares about him, enough to be honest with him, thereby not allowing himself the intimacy of relationships.

“If your own parents lie to you, how do you recover from that? ” Jorge asks me, not necessarily wanting an answer. “It is hard,” I say, “very hard”.


4 Responses to “The Lying Relative”

  1. Shelly said

    I understand and empathize with Jorge, and can see how it can color everything in his life. If his parents lied to him, then why wouldn’t anyone else? It is from his home environment that he learns how the world works: If he learns that he can’t trust people because even his parents lied, then he will learn that he can’t trust anyone. If he learns strife and chaos at home when he is child, then he will learn that life is chaotic and that he has little control. I wish I were a fly on the wall and could be present in your therapy sessions–to see how you and Jorge interact and overcome his terrible upbringing and learn to trust again.

    • Yes, Shelly, Jorge illustrates a more subtle kind of child abuse, where there is no overt physical, abuse or sexual abuse, or neglect, and yet, there is a tremendous violation in the trust of the relationship, potentially damaging his relationships throughout his lifetime, because, as you say, he cannot settle into a relationship with trust, since he is constantly on guard for his next betrayal. The work of the therapy is to help him see, both through developing a trusting relationship with me, and through understanding that just because he got the short stick in terms of the family he comes from, that does not mean that his future needs to repeat his past. Some people, I would say a minority of people, purposefully deceive others, but most people want to help others. Jorge can come to learn that his early relationships distorted this proportion in his mind. Thanks.

  2. Ashana M said

    We learn to take a perspective first, perhaps, from looking from our own eyes.Then, we learn to see from the perspective of those close to us. If our own perspective is wildly divergent from that of the people close to us when we are young, and their perspectiv is just as divergent from that of others we aren’t close to, then it becomes really difficult to maneuver within the broader world. Why are people doing what they do? What motivates them? It’s difficult to fathom, and because of that, it’s hard to form relationships. It’s hard to trust others, because we can’t understand them.

    Asking questions helps. I can understand myself and why I do what I do. I understand people who are utterly deceptive and lack conscience or empathy. Their minds make sense to me. Ordinary people with ordinary character defects are difficult to understand. I find it helps to have people who can explain others to me and who don’t mind explaining themselves to me, and that get that garden variety dysfunction is largely outside of my range of experience.

    If your mother lies to you, it’s difficult to understand why other people, who aren’t your mother, tell the truth.

    • Yes, Ashana, that is true. It is difficult to understand trust, when the first relationship involves lies. This difficulty justifies the hard work of psychotherapy, which as you suggest, implies an arduous journey of understanding that the past does not have to be repeated. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: