Pathological Liars: Understanding Compulsive Lying

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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 lie — 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 Lies Versus White Lies

Pathological lying is different from creating a fabrication to get out of something or change the scope of a situation in your favor, both of which are white lies.

White lies are small lies. 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, for example, a friend says “I love your dress!” but they don’t really mean it.

Pathological liars, on the other hand often lack empathy — they are often colder and more calculating. 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 the liar. According to Psych Central, a pathological liar appears to lie for no apparent reason or personal gain. In fact, the 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.”

How to Deal With a Pathological Liar

When someone lies to us, our trust in them can feel broken. Once you notice a pattern, it hurts even more. If you think you’re dealing with a pathological liar, you do have options, however, on how to 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 the truth isn’t being told. Before you do so, however, consider the potential that the liar could have feelings of resentment when 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 nothing is changing and 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

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, are typically telling impulsive, random lies, and feel 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, which 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 or medication or both, will depend on whether or not the pathological lying is a symptom of an underlying psychiatric condition.

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