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.
There are some people, however, for whom lying is a way of life. These are the pathological liars or compulsive liars who 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?
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
Pathological lying or compulsive lying is not a nice thing to have to confront, but if you can learn to spot the warning signs early on, you can avoid getting too drawn in to the person in question.
While the causes of this sort of uncontrollable lying are complex, there is little doubt that the effects on the lives of the liar and those with whom they connect are negative.
In the words of Dorothy Allison:
Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.