Pathological Liars: Understanding Compulsive Lying

Published on: 15 Jun 2019
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Updated on 11/15/2020

A pathological liar exhibits the chronic behavior of habitual or compulsive lying. While it’s common to tell an occasional white lie, pathological liars tell more than a random fib — oftentimes lying has become part of that person’s everyday life, and telling a lie feels more natural than telling the truth.

While there are a number of reasons people tell lies — to spare someone’s feelings or avoid difficult situations — pathological lying is usually a symptom of a greater problem. While there is inconclusive research on whether psychological lying is a neurological disorder, it has been concluded that it can either be a stand-alone problem or a symptom of other disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or of some personality disorders.

Pathological lying is also referred to as pseudologia fantastica and mythomania. The term pseudologia fantastica was coined by a German physician named Anton Delbrueck in 1891 to describe those who tell complex stories where delusions seemed to coexist with lies. He noticed that a particular group of patients told extreme, fantastical lies that were obviously untrue to the observer, yet believed by the patients themselves to be within the realm of possibility. People with pseudologia fantastica present fantasies as real occurrences and tell eloquent and interesting fictions to impress others. If their stories are ever doubted by the listener, those with pseudologia fantastica will use elaborations to satisfy their listener, finding new lies to replace the old. Often they begin to believe their own stories as truths.

Even though pseudologia fantastica, or pathological lying is not coded in the DSM 5, it has commonly been associated with factitious disorder (also known as Munchausen syndrome). Factitious disorder is a mental disorder that causes a person to portray themselves as if they have a physical or psychological illness when in fact they don’t. It is also common for them to falsely present others as being injured, ill, or impaired. Similar to factitious disorder, pathological lying shows a marked tendency of an individual to lie. However, the two disorders differ in the sense that in factitious disorder the motivations of the liar are external, but for pathological liars, their motivations are internal.

Additionally, pathological lying has been marked as a key symptom of antisocial personality disorder. Those with antisocial personality disorder have a common disregard for the rights of others and are known to tell lies to gain status or manipulate others.

Pathological Lies Versus White Lies

Pathological lying is different and more severe than telling white lies. White lies are lies about small or unimportant issues that are told to avoid hurting another person. White lies often refer to instances where one creates a fabrication to get out of something or to change the scope of a situation in their favor.

A white liar is the most common type of liar, someone who tells untruths in everyday situations to make life a little easier. These lies are harmless, and sometimes even necessary. For example, complementing your mother’s dinner even when you don’t love it, or when a friend says “I love your dress!” but they don’t really mean it. White lies are a good way to protect one’s own feelings along with those of others. White lies come somewhat naturally to children and are even associated with achieving a level of social intelligence.

On the other hand, when pathological liars tell lies it can be problematic. Unlike white lies and compulsive lies, pathological lies can negatively affect other people. Often these liars lack empathy — they are commonly colder and more calculating, and their lies often end up hurting their victims. The falsehoods of pathological liars usually have selfish, manipulative goals. Neuroscientists carried out a study on the brains of pathological liars and found that they have difficulty holding down long-term jobs. The short-term gains from their constant lies catch up with them and they live wandering lives, constantly switching workplaces and relationships.

Why Do Pathological Liars Lie?

Why someone lies pathologically is often unknown to the audience and to the liar themselves. According to Psych Central, a pathological liar appears to lie for no apparent reason or personal gain. In fact, chronic lying seems to be a pointless habit, one which is incredibly frustrating for family, friends, and coworkers. The Psychiatric Times defines pathological lying as a “long history — maybe lifelong history —of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned.”

It is interesting to note that studies have shown pathological liars to have more white matter in the prefrontal area of their brain, which might impact why they are so prone to compulsive lying. People with more white matter have been found to have problems with empathy and emotion, but also have quicker connections, verbal fluency, and faster thought processing.

Additionally, pathological lying has been marked as a key symptom of antisocial personality disorder. Those with antisocial personality disorder have a common disregard for the rights of others and are known to tell lies to gain status or manipulate others.

How to Deal With a Pathological Liar

Once someone lies to you, it can be hard to find a way to trust them again. It can especially hurt if the person lies to you continuously. Once you notice a pattern, it hurts even more. Dealing with pathological liars can be incredibly frustrating and it might start to feel like you can’t trust anything they say. If you think you’re dealing with a pathological liar, read on for ways you can handle the situation.

Address the problem

If you’re willing to help the liar process their emotions, make him or her aware that you know that they aren’t telling you the truth. However, before you do this, be aware that the liar could potentially have feelings of resentment upon hearing you vocalize your concerns. Next, calmly discuss the problem in a private, safe space, try to help them understand the reason behind the lies and encourage them to seek help outside of your relationship.

Walk away

If the pathological liar continues to lie and nothing is changing after you’ve expressed your concerns, you may have to step away from the relationship. Lies can hurt deeply and the pathological liar needs to recognize that change is necessary to keep those they love in their life.

No matter what, stay calm

Even though dealing with a pathological liar can be incredibly hurtful and upsetting, it’s not worth your energy to argue with someone who lives in a fantasy world. Starting a conflict with someone who may not know what they are doing (or might get defensive) won’t help anyone. Be sure to always keep your cool and avoid directly engaging with the lies.

How to Recognize Pathological Lying

Identifying pathological lying can be difficult. After all, those who do it may not be aware of their behavior and are so accustomed to telling impulsive, random lies. Often, pathological liars feel as if they aren’t in control of the lying.

You can ask yourself or the liar a series of questions to better understand the situation:

  • Is the individual chronically lying about little things?
  • Are they frequently contradicting themselves?
  • Do they show little or no remorse about their lies?

If confronted, the liar may become defensive or hostile. This response will naturally make you question whether it’s worth challenging them, even if you have proof of the falsities he or she is telling.

You can try to spot behaviors, patterns, and encourage change, but professional help is likely necessary to help them recognize and successfully deal with these deeply rooted issues. While you can try to empathize and cope with a pathological liar’s constant mistruths. Understanding what causes the lying is the only way to change a pathological liar’s behavior.

Treatment, which can include psychotherapy, medication, or both, will depend on whether or not the pathological lying is a symptom of an underlying psychiatric condition.

It can be hard to navigate any sort of relationship with a pathological liar, but hopefully this article can help you better understand the roots of this disorder and lead you to better navigate the situation. It is completely understandable that others’ lying may lead you to experience feelings of frustration, upset, and helplessness. A licensed online therapist can help when you’re dealing with a pathological liar. Know that therapy can help you work through your own feelings, come up with an actionable plan for confronting them, and also support the person struggling with pathological lying. If you’re in a relationship, you might also want to consider couples therapy to help you both reconnect and rebuild your relationship.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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