In A Better You, Syndromes & Disorders

What Makes (and Breaks) a Compulsive Liar

compulsive liar

Let us start this debate with a concrete fact: everybody lies. Gregory House said it in the first episode of the famous medical drama and you have probably lived long enough to see it proved over and over again. We all lie and our reasons are various. Some lie to deceive and some do it to escape blame and some do it out of kindness. In some situations, lying is even the courteous and socially acceptable thing to do. But despite our occasional fabrications, each of us can probably trace back a good sound reason for why we tell our lies. If you are or happen to know someone who lies excessively for no particular purpose, and with no potential benefit in mind, then you need to know what pathological lying is. Before you set your mind on telling the story of the lying shepherd and the wolf yet another time, let us help you recognize if the object of your concern really needs preaching, or a few therapy sessions. In this article, we will introduce you to the compulsive liar.

|SEE ALSO: The Elusive Concept of Psychological Projection|

Why Do We Lie?

Psychologically healthy people don’t give a lot of thoughts to lying because it’s always a conscious decision. You did something terribly wrong so you want to avoid a lecture from your manager or parents. Or you hurt someone’s feelings and you needed to make up a story to fix the situation. So far, this behavior is quite normal. We won’t argue if it is ethical, but it is typically human. Others have evil motives behind their lies: they aim to manipulate or cause harm. They have a personal gain in mind: be it money, revenge, or emotional satisfaction. These people are evil. But you can probably reason with them. And if told the story, you’d easily conclude they lied because of X. When X is nonexistent, it could be a little tricky and might indicate a psychological issue.

Psychology Today has narrowed down the reasons people with psychological issues lie to the following:

  • They lie for popularity: simply put, these people want attention and do believe that their regular selves are not good enough. They create stories and events where they are admirable heroes or, alternatively, situations where they are horribly victimized. Either way, the attention they get, the sympathy or the admiration, fuel them for more.
  • They lie to control: these people manipulate the facts to gain psychological supremacy over others. They do it to scare them or to make them feel bad. They get a thrill out of emotionally toying with their feelings. And the more they get away with it, the more they’d want to do it.
  • They lie because they are insecure: although we all do that in varying degrees, those who constantly lie about every single detail of their lives are a different story. It would make sense if you felt bad about your bad grades and wanted to hide the fact from, say, your faraway cousins. But these people would go as far as making up a whole new life with tiny irrelevant details. It’s as if they want to be someone else.

So where do compulsive liars fit in these categories? Let us first define a compulsive liar.

What Is a Compulsive Liar?

A compulsive liar is someone who lies excessively and habitually with no particular “end in view.” It is called pathological lying or “pseudologia fantastica.” What sets a compulsive liar apart from other liars is the consistency with which he/she lies. Compulsive liars create incredibly complicated lies, with specifics and background stories, and they keep them going for years. Because pathological lying is a controversial topic, psychologists argue whether the compulsive liar knows or controls their lies or not. An argument claims that compulsive liars end up living the lie so vicariously that they can no longer distinguish between reality and their fantasies. What logically supports this claim is that a compulsive liar’s lies are often destructive on the long run, ruining marriages and careers. So if they can rationally reason, they’ll choose not to tell these specific lies, especially that there is hardly any detectable reward for them out of it.

Here is a story to elaborate. Alex leads a decent life. She has her own apartment and she is engaged to the love of her life. At her new job, Alex told everyone that she has cancer. Her colleagues and managers completely supported her, helped her around with her work, and showered her with attention. It is obvious for anyone with logical thinking that Alex’s lie cannot go on forever. But she seemed oblivious to the possible consequence of fooling everyone who trusted her or sympathized with her. Naturally, Alex’s lie was revealed and she got fired.

In the past example story, Alex added many plausible details to support her lie: regular doctor appointments, visits from a parent who abandoned her, and her dog who could feel her pain and was the only thing to cheer her up. To everyone’s dismay, Alex’s parents are still happily married, there’s, of course, no doctor, and surprisingly there is no pet either. But why? The lies and the stories don’t seem to add any value to her character: she didn’t for example say that she rescued a child from a collapsing building. Alex gained no special admiration out of her story. Perhaps the fake sickness allowed her the attention she needed, but you’d come to wonder again, what about the dog story? What about the return of the abandoning parent? How did these details benefit her at all?

You could also notice that Alex’s story is neither particularly happy nor tragic. The false life she chose for herself was not good enough for us to consider it’s a form of escape. And it wasn’t bad enough for us to suspect she is delusional. When faced with her lies, Alex threw a thousand more lies to justify her original scam. But it was really hard for her friends and family to spot the thin line between her reality and her fabrications anymore.

How to Deal with a Compulsive Liar

It can be very frustrating to deal with someone whose every statement is potentially false. But before we learn how to deal with it, let us first know how to recognize compulsive liars among the rest of the liars’ crowd.

  • If you have recently unraveled a lie told by someone you know, it is most likely a lie with a motive. Try to recognize why it happened. Only start worrying if the behavior is consistent.
  • A compulsive liar’s lies are always exaggerated, though plausible, but you can often notice how they actively participate in every conversation with their rather pointless stories that usually center around them and don’t add much to the conversation.
  • If you suspect your friend’s story is a lie, play along. Ask too many questions and investigate the little details. So they have recently bought a new house? Awesome, how many rooms? Who was the broker? Is there a supermarket around? What is its name?
  • The liar will eventually get uncomfortable and you’ll either notice long pauses or their desperate attempts at changing the subject.
  • Notice that the too many details are a disadvantage to the liar because as the time passes, it will get harder and harder to remember. Keep in mind a particular detail and ask about it again in a later conversation.
  • Have the same story told to you once and then again to another friend. Emphasize on a few details and have your friend emphasize on a few others. You’ll probably notice that the original story changed in the direction of your different questions.
  • If you have finally unraveled the lie, don’t directly confront the compulsive liar. Address the revelation carefully by only allowing them to know that you have figured out part of the truth. They’ll quickly fabricate another story to cover up for the part you found out. When you eventually tell them that you know everything, it will be trickier for them to keep lying.

Now that you are sure you’re dealing with a compulsive liar, take notice of this: compulsive liars are not innately evil. Pathological lying can be a symptom of many personality disorders, so it is wise to treat the issue as a sickness, not a bad behavior.

Here are a few tips on how to deal with a compulsive liar:

  • Firstly, a compulsive liar may, at some unconscious level, believe their lies. What you should do is help them see things for what they really are.
  • Only confront the liar when you’re absolutely sure they are lying; that is, you already have evidence.
  • Expect them to be very defensive. The evidence here will help a great deal because they can’t argue with the crystal clear truth.
  • If you are friends and you seriously care for this person, reassure them that you still love them the same. Explain that you understand your friend felt compelled to lie and that you are willing to help.
  • Advise them of practicing the truth bit by bit. Telling a few truths consciously and intentionally may help reformatting their behavior.
  • Reassure them about their insecurities. Start by telling them something you are insecure about too, and then resume to explain that it is completely OK to not be sure of everything.
  • Remind them of the consequences: you can’t fool everyone all the time. Remind them of how far worse it can get: they might lose a loved one, their job, or their friends.
  • Suggest therapy.
  • Watch out for other symptoms of personality disorders (bipolar personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc.)
  • Finally, explain that you value yourself enough to not be lied to. Explain kindly that you find it disrespectful and hurtful and that you’ll be supportive as much as you can but you would like to see some positive change in return.

There is no manual to how to deal with a compulsive liar. You’ll have to figure out for yourself if the case is worth the time, efforts, and disappointments. Keep in mind that it won’t be easy and that you’ll probably be lied to again. But in all cases, and even if you choose to leave, offer a hand first. Isolation is the worst thing you can do to a psychologically troubled person.

If you often feel compelled to tell little pointless lies yourself, here are a few tips on how to stop. And remember, the boy who cried wolf one false alarm too many got eaten in the end.


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