Does Therapeutic Lying Increase Stigma?

This morning I managed to dip in at the end of #demphd which focused on language and stigma.  I always prickle when I hear the term ‘Therapeutic Lying’ in relation to people who are living with dementia.  I have expressed some feelings in emails and on twitter, but it was only yesterday that I felt I had got to the root of this physical reaction.

We are taught from an early age to value honesty and tell the truth. Being called a liar is seen as a harsh criticism.  However studies have shown that we lie on average once or twice a day.  In his book, Born Liars, Ian Leslie points out that lying is deeply connected to what makes us human.

There are many examples of where pleasantries may trump saying how we really feel: “I’m fine”, “It’s no trouble at all”.  I think there are things we say which are intended to mislead, for example complimenting someone on a meal you had not enjoyed, or on a new haircut you don’t think suits them.

Saying what we think or feel may be met with defence mechanisms and I wonder what purpose this may serve.  Most of us are able to relate to others and imagine what a truth might do to our sense of self, so we lie.

I think there are many other reasons we lie – self preservation, self aggrandisement/deprecation, to name a couple, but my thinking at the moment is more about being aware of the impact we have on other people through what we say and do.

I feel by defining a way we communicate with a person living with dementia as Therapeutic Lying, we’re separating a particular behaviour from something we are doing every day. By including the word Therapeutic, it seems we are seeking to legitimatise it as a technique.  By saying this is something we need to use as we are dealing with a different group of people with different needs, are we exacerbating a divide and perhaps in turn increasing rather than reducing stigma?  Widening a gap between an us and a them.  The wider the gap the easier I feel it is to treat someone with less humanity.

If we can imagine the negative impact of telling our truth to a friend, for example, surely we can also think of the impact it may have on someone who is living with dementia.   Rather than promoting Therapeutic Lying, perhaps we need to be teaching empathy instead.

If we truly empathise with another and we enter their world and are able to support their reality in the moment, we may be able to intuit what a sensitive response might be.  I feel all our realities are different, and while a person living with dementia’s reality may seem far removed from our own, if we try and walk in their shoes, we may find it closer than we thought.


4 thoughts on “Does Therapeutic Lying Increase Stigma?”

  1. Hello Alex

    A beautifully put blog, so true. People assume empathy comes natural but if you havnt been shown it how can you give it. Something i feel the world can benifit more and will perhaps enable people to consider working in another persons shoes.
    I recently had a struggle , some one i know with learning disabilty, people didnt want her to no their mum was dying of cancer. I felt this didnt show autonmy and i really worried about the long term damage. I did manage to involve professionals and together found a suitable way to tell her. I just felt what write do we have to take that persons write away , to hide her from reality and accpect to to accept it now her mum has gone.
    To conclude, i feel people are unable to “say the truth” because they are partly protecting them self as having to cope with it. I understand as watching a loved one live with dementia is a heart braking struggle in its self. But who knows to go one the journy with some one may eas the pain?? Xx

    1. Thank you Carley!

      I wonder if it’s the understanding of empathy, I think the concept often gets confused with relating to someone – seeing their experience as yourself, not through their eyes (as you know!). Think that might be one for another blog 🙂

      I’m glad you were able to support the person with learning difficulties and yes I agree sometimes people aren’t able to manage the perceived ‘fall out’, so don’t want to go there…

      To go on the journey with someone always evokes lovely images for me 🙂

      Have a lovey day and thank you.

      Alex x

  2. Great first blog Alex… sorry I missed it when it first came online! I’ve pressed the ‘Follow’ button now, so hope to keep up with your writings. And welcome to the brave world of blogging! Happy to support you in any way I can. Kate

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