Pathological And Compulsive Liars: Causes, Signs Of, And How To Deal With One

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They lie again and again.

Dishonesty is their calling card.

Sometimes they don’t even seem to know what is true and what is false.

Welcome to the world of pathological liars.

Now, can you, hand on heart, say you tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth 100% of the time?

No, of course you can’t, and neither can 99.99% of the population.

If anyone claims to always tell the truth, they are almost certainly lying.

But most of us can say with some honesty that we try to keep our lies to a minimum.

For the pathological liars and compulsive liars, however, lying is a way of life. They tell porkies more often than they tell the truth.

So what is pathological or compulsive lying, why do people do it, and how can you spot it?

Pseudologia Fantastica

Pathological lying or Pseudologia Fantastica to give it its more formal Latin name (also known as Mythomania) is somewhat of a talking point in psychiatric circles.

While some consider it merely a symptom of other conditions (such as borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder), others believe it should also be regarded as a standalone disorder.

The reasons for this debate are beyond the scope of this article, but one thing is for certain: some people do lie consistently and compulsively.

This kind of lying can be described as both chronic in the sense that it occurs over long periods of time – often someone’s entire life – and habitual in the sense that it occurs regularly as if it is second nature.

Some people even consider it to be a form of addiction, whereby the liar lies in order to gratify some psychological impulse much like an alcoholic, smoker, or gambling addict might respond to specific neurological triggers.

Lies of this sort are always born of some internal motivation as opposed to an external motivation. In other words, they lie to gratify themselves, not to avoid the negative consequences of telling the truth.

Pathological lying is not always as obvious as you might expect, especially if the interaction between two people is fleeting or when the relationship has yet to properly develop.

The liars can come across as interesting, intelligent, socially adept, and even charming.

Yet, over time, as the lies become apparent, it strips away any trust that might have grown and causes significant tension between the liar and those being lied to.

Friendships, romantic entanglements, work relationships, and even family bonds are liable to break down if and when these constant falsehoods are uncovered.

Pathological Vs Compulsive Lying: Is There A Difference?

While some literature uses the terms pathological and compulsive interchangeably when discussing this sort of deceitful behavior, others believe it is possible to make a clear distinction between the two.

Here are some ways in which one type of lying might be distinguished from the other:

Pathological Liars

  • lie with a clear intent or motive
  • create extravagant stories that may be maintained/tweaked over long periods of time
  • often believe their own lies / have a weak grip on reality
  • are more likely to go on the defensive if a lie is challenged
  • have more control over when they lie
  • feel less discomfort and exhibit fewer of the signs of lying

Compulsive Liars

  • feel literally compelled to lie, either because it’s the only way they know of operating or because they are uncomfortable with the truth
  • often lie for no clear reason and sometimes for no real benefit
  • make up lies more spontaneously and without great thought
  • prefer to tell the sorts of lies that they think people want to hear
  • mostly know what is a lie and what is the truth
  • are more likely to admit to lying when confronted, though this might not stop them from continuing to lie

These characteristics merely point to some of the ways in which a pathological liar may differ from a compulsive liar, but they are not strict definitions. As we mentioned above, not everyone agrees on a clear separation between the two.

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What Causes This Lying Behavior?

As with all personality disorders or traits, there is rarely a single, clear, underlying cause for these kinds of lying.

It is highly likely that a mix of genetic and environmental factors contribute to it, but this mix will be unique to each individual.

Here are just a few of the more common reasons for compulsive and pathological lying:

1. Personality disorders – as mentioned above, this form of lying can be associated with various types of personality disorder.

That is not to say that it is caused by these disorders, but rather it forms a part of them.

2. Their brains are different – while the hard, scientific evidence remains somewhat sparse, there are studies that indicate potential differences in the brains of pathological liars.

One such study showed a widespread increase in the white matter in 3 prefontal subregions of the brain.

While another suggested that the act of lying can make the next lie easier to tell in a ‘slippery slope’ of deceit. This might be because of the way the amygdala’s emotional response to lying weakens with repetition.

Some early work found that as many as 40% of pathological liars had evidence of central nervous system dysfunction which may relate to conditions such as epilepsy, head trauma, or infection of the central nervous system itself.

3. They learned to lie – during our childhoods, we learn what is acceptable and what is not. It may be the case that an adult who lies compulsively or pathologically does so because this is what they learned to do.

Whether because of some childhood trauma or simply because it was effective in getting what they wanted from a caregiver, lying may have become a default setting.

This links back to the second study quoted above about how lying becomes easier the more one does it.

4. Substance abuse – when in the grips of an addiction such as alcoholism or drug use, a person may lie in order to both hide their problem from others and as a means to fund their habit.

In these instances, the need to meet their addiction overrides their moral code when it comes to making decisions about what to say. The same can be said about their shame and the desire to conceal their habit.

5. Other mental health issues – people who lie pathologically may also be suffering from a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or OCD. This does NOT mean that people with those conditions are pathological liars.

But if someone regularly lies due to a mental health issue, it may be down to underlying feelings of fear and shame surrounding that issue.

They may lie to escape the realities of their condition or to hide it from those around them.   

Signs Of Pathological/Compulsive Lying

If you suspect someone of regularly lying to you, and you want to know whether they are doing so to conceal an indiscretion (which is not pathological because it is based on external motivation) or because this is simply how they function, look for some of the signs below.

1. Their stories are beyond belief -if you often find yourself shaking your head in disbelief at some of the claims being made, it’s more likely that you are dealing with a pathological liar (less so a compulsive liar).

If they tell you how they dined with Tom Cruise or hold the world record for the number of chipolatas eaten in 60 seconds, it’s a big red flag.

2. Their lies contribute to their attention-seeking behavior – if a person lies in order to direct the attention back toward themselves or it forms part of a more general need for attention, they could be a pathological liar.

Yet they may get attention in two very different ways, which are covered in points 3 and 4.

3. They lie to inflate themselves – rather than admit to their shortcomings or divulge information that might reveal a hard time they are having, they construct stories that paint their life and their character in a more positive light.

Or…

4. They lie to create a victim identity – in order to garner sympathy and attention from others, they may tell regular falsehoods regarding unfortunate events that have befallen them. This could include illnesses, personal losses, maltreatment by others, or some horrible occurrence that has left them in physical or emotional pain.

5. They have poor self-esteem – on its own, low self-esteem is not a sign of pathological or compulsive lying, but when observed alongside some of the other signs, it adds to the overall picture of a person’s lying ways.

Poor self-esteem may be more likely to indicate you’re dealing with a compulsive liar as it may be a crutch they use to hide their anxieties and insecurities.

6. They love to have the last word – when you argue with a pathological liar, they will always want to have the last word. After all, if you stop arguing your point, they can claim victory and continue with their lie until it is challenged again.

As mentioned in our comparison above, compulsive liars might be more willing to admit to their lies, and so won’t be so keen on having the last word.

7. They are mentally quick on their feet – in order to spin lies to different people, in different situations, they are typically very quick-minded and versatile in terms of the stories they tell. They can pull lies out of thin air and make them sound very convincing.

8. They backpedal and change stories to cover up lies – if a lie has been uncovered, or they sense that one is about to be, they may change their statements and alter their stories. Only, if you point out that they said something different before, they will deny it and claim you misheard or misunderstood.

9. They lead unstable lives that are often full of drama – as much as they may try to keep their lies hidden, most people eventually realize that something doesn’t add up.

Relationships break down, jobs are lost, and the pathological liar may find themselves moving between circles of friends and even different locations to find new unsuspecting victims to lie to.

10. They cannot keep secrets they’ve been told and like to gossip – because honesty is not a quality they care anything about, you are likely to hear a lot of details about other people – some of which will be personal secrets. Nothing is sacrosanct.

How To Deal With This Form Of Lying

The obvious way to deal with a compulsive or pathological liar is to avoid dealing with them at all. To remove them from your life.

But this is not always easy, nor is it always desirable.

As we have discussed above, this form of lying can have a variety of causes. Those causes do not necessarily make someone a bad person or a wholly negative influence on your life.

Yes, if you can be fairly sure that an individual is suffering from the likes of narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, it is probably wise to distance yourself from them. And you do not have to feel guilty for doing so.

But if the person in question has depression or an addiction or one of the other causes listed above, you may wish to keep them in your life. How, then, do you approach their lying?

Trust… Where Appropriate

It’s simply not healthy for you to consider every word this person says as a lie. Yes, they may lie a lot, but they will also speak the truth at times.

Or they may exaggerate something which is for the most part true.

Either way, try to learn to recognize when they are more likely to be lying and when they are telling the truth.

Are there particular subjects that they lie about most often – that you have caught them lying about previously? Are there times when their mental state makes them more prone to lying?

You can have a healthy level of skepticism when listening to what they say, but unless you have a strong suspicion that it is a lie, putting a little bit of faith and trust in them isn’t a bad thing.

Of course, if the matter at hand is something of importance, you should be more wary than if it’s something of little consequence.

The reason you should put some trust in them is because if they think you believe everything they say is a lie, what reason are you giving them to tell you the truth?

By showing some degree of trust in them, you create a positive environment in which they might feel more comfortable telling the truth, particularly if their lies are related to feelings of shame or guilt.

Understand The Lie

We hurt when someone lies to us because an unconscious emotional response is triggered. In order to lessen this response, we need to combat it with critical thinking.

Ask: why did this person lie? What was their motive? What underlying reasons do they have to lie in this situation?

Refer back to the causes in the earlier section and see if you can pinpoint those that are relevant in this particular case.

This should help you understand the person who lied to you and sympathize with them to some degree.

You might not be able to overcome your entire emotional response, but it should allow you to act more calmly so as to diffuse as much tension from the situation as possible.

Accept That It Happened And Will Happen Again

Pathological or compulsive liars don’t always have a great deal of control over the lies they tell. So you have to accept their lies as part of them being in your life.

This doesn’t mean that you have to accept what they say as the truth or that their lying is acceptable in a wider context. It means accepting that their lying is not always done with malicious intent to you or others.

Lying is something that they do. At least, it is something that they do right now, given their current circumstances.

While you may seek to help them overcome this habitual behavior, they will tell you further lies. Try to see it for what it is and try not to take it too personally.

Help Them Seek Treatment For Any Underlying Causes

If their lying has arisen more recently and the cause is something you are aware of, try to encourage them to seek treatment for it.

If, for example, they have fallen into a depression and the lies started at the same time, you may be able to persuade them to see a doctor in order for them to find a suitable treatment.

Or if they have formed a destructive addictive habit which has caused them to lie excessively, you might once again be there to support them through admitting their problem and finding a way to address it.

Even if this person’s lying is a long-standing issue that developed in childhood, you can help them find a suitable professional psychotherapist to work with.

People who lie repeatedly are not easy people to have in your life. But neither should they always be vilified as evil or manipulative.

Lying can become pathological or compulsive for many reasons and as much as it can affect the lives of those who tell the lies and the people around them, there are ways to deal with it and even to treat it so that it bears less of a burden.

Hopefully this article has helped you to gain a better understanding of what these forms of lying are.

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