We’ve all gotten away with a lie or two in the past; whether it’s telling a friend you’re sick when you just want a night on your own, or expressing how much you love your Christmas gift to your great aunt, sometimes lying makes sense and is the right thing to do. In fact, University of Massachusetts researchers found that most people lie in everyday conversation, with up to 60% of people lying at least once during a 10-minute conversation. However, even that somewhat alarming frequency doesn’t approach the level of a pathological liar.
However, when someone is lying more often than not, and for seemingly no reason at all, that’s when it becomes an issue. It’s not always easy to spot a pathological liar, and not all lies are told by pathological liars. Their stories may have different versions of the same tale, and it’s not simple to remember each lie.
What is a pathological liar?
In their article Pathological Lying Revisited for the September 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, researchers Dike, Baranoski and Griffith define pathological liar as “an individual [who] repeatedly and apparently compulsively tells false stories.” The researchers further define pathological lying in stating that it “is falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, and may manifest over a period of years or even a lifetime.”
A pathological liar is someone who has made lying a habit. They can lie about both small, incidental topics and create elaborate stories. The chronic need to lie about a vast genre of topics is what differentiates white lies from pathological lying. Lying by saying you felt sick is understandable when you want to make an early exit from a bad date, but a pathological liar saying their house is blue when it’s really green makes no sense and serves no one. They also tend to tell grand, detailed lies (as opposed to vague, short stories when normal people are lying) and may even believe their lies.
What causes pathological lying?
“There are a number of causes for someone to develop the habit of pathological lying,” said Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse and certified trauma therapist. “On one side of the spectrum are people who have deep feelings of inadequacy and it drives their need to create a false narrative about themselves and the quality of their life. On the opposite side of that spectrum are individuals with either Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder.”
According to Thomas, pathological liars will tell lies to play emotional games with the people around them. They derive entertainment out of fooling unsuspecting victims with their lies. The diagnostic criteria includes a grandiose sense of self. Lying helps their internal need to be seen as better than other people.
How to spot a pathological liar
“Pathological lying can be initially tricky to spot,” explained Thomas. “The depth and detail of the lies often cover for the lack of truth included. Looking for the pattern of actions not aligning with words helps to spot a pathological liar. Over time, their mask begins to fall.”
“Pathological liars may struggle with existing mental health diagnosis such as personality disorders,” added Erica Wiles, licensed professional counselor. “They are unable to maintain lasting relationships as the lies tend to change and break down over time. They have to move on to save face or people become tired with the lying and break contact.”
The hallmark of a pathological liar is that he/she lies often. The lies are compulsive and consistent regardless of any perceived or known consequences. The lies are grandiose with the liar playing a large role in the tale to get attention and/or sympathy. Other signs include:
- Lies tend to be complex, consistent and have some bits of truth to them: They are realistic lies in that they seem reasonable even if they are exaggerated in nature.
- Lying is a habit: Lies are chronic and are compulsive in nature.
- Lies become truth: Due to the habitual nature, lies are often believed by the liar.
- They wear a “mask:” Social situations and interactions are superficial and staged. They are purposeful and calculated to support lies and image. Saving “face” is extremely important.
- They don’t have close friends: A pathological liar tends to have very few, if any, long-lasting interpersonal relationships. Lies are hard to maintain. This is true even if the liar fully believes the lie. People eventually see through the facade and the relationship becomes toxic.
Coping with a pathological liar
Of course, the best way to cope with a pathological liar is to not associate with them. Thomas suggested putting as much distance between you and the liar as possible. However, if contact is needed, begin documenting conversations. “Pathological liars love to use gaslighting as a technique to confuse the conversation,” Thomas explained. “This especially happens when they’ve been caught in a lie.” So even if, say, a simple online people search turned up information that easily proves the person is lying, pointing it out may not be as productive as you’d expect.
If you’re unable to avoid interacting with a compulsive liar, Wiles suggested setting strict boundaries. “Do not think you can fix the person or their problems, in other words, do not feed into the drama or take responsibility for their problems,” she explained. “Know your limits and be aware of your emotional reactions. Ask yourself how much you are willing to put up with before it becomes too much.”
Most importantly, be aware that you will be lied to; this is the nature of a pathological liar. Knowing that you are not an exception will help avoid disappointment when lies do arise.
Can pathological liars be treated?
If trauma, anxiety, or depression are causes of pathological lying, treatment is available to address the underlying issue. As with personality disorders, the lying can become so ingrained in daily life that trying to stop without treatment would be almost impossible.
“With help, the compulsion to lie can be corrected,” explained Thomas. However, “if the pathological lying is due to Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder, treatment has proven to be ineffective because these individuals rarely stay in counseling long enough to fully address their lack of empathy and attachment with others.”
Treatment depends on a person’s willingness to engage in it. If they are able to recognize the lying as a problem, then they may be willing to change, but this would be an extremely unusual situation for a pathological liar.