Pathological lying is something most people would rather not talk about. Why? Because it is a complicated subject that even most people cannot understand or even explain.
Do you know someone who tends to lie often about any and everything? Have you caught them in a lie or two and wonder why they continue to lie? If so, you are obviously dealing with a pathological liar.
What most people fail to recognize about pathological liars is that they often lack the ability to empathize with others (walk in your shoes), feel guilt about their behavior, and have trouble controlling their inborn impulse to lie. For most of us, it is very difficult to lie with a straight face and quite easy to feel guilty about the lie. But for someone with “psychological deficits” or pathological behaviors, it is rather easy for them to lie while exhibiting behaviors and emotions that make the lie believable.
What is most interesting about pathological liars is that many of them know how to control their emotions in such a way that lying can look like the truth to us. This article will explore pathological lying and offer tips on how to protect yourself from their wrath.
Pathological lying can occur for many reasons. It isn’t necessarily a mental illness. In fact, most research regards pathological lying as a “symptom” of a bigger issue (i.e., a personality disorder). A personality disorder is a prolonged or pervasive way of existing in the world that isn’t easily altered with therapy. For the most part, therapy isn’t enough and no medication upon the earth can help it.
Having worked with adolescents for the past 7-8 years in the mental health field and juvenile justice system, I have seen my fair share of teens with sociopathic, borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic traits that includes lying behaviors. The lying behaviors are typically chronic, destructive to others, purposeful and non-purposeful at times, calculated or impulsive, manipulative, and confusing for everyone. In many cases, pathological lying occurs when you least expect it. I’ve heard many parents make statements such as “I know he is lying when his lips are moving” or “she just tells lies with no problem. She does it with ease.”
It’s not just a “fib”
Pathological lying is very different from telling a “fib” or “white lie” to get out of something or change the scope of a situation. The lying is insidious, evil, and sometimes vindictive. Some individuals have developed skill in lying to others and have no fear or regret in engaged in lying to a Judge, police officer, therapist, psychiatrist, family member, spouse, supervisor, etc. They can also present as very calm or charming, provide appropriate eye contact, maintain normal breathing rhythms, be personable or friendly, and have calm body language. These individuals certainly fit the description of a sociopath and can be very dangerous for society and the lives of those who are in relation to them in some form or fashion.
Living with a pathological liar
The tragic reality of those who work with, live with, or know a pathological liar is that there are almost always victims. Sometimes you are a part of a lie and may not even know it. Other times, you may know the person is lying, but due to the person being very personable and friendly, you struggle to even consider the fact that maybe you are being lied to. In other cases, you might also struggle to convince others that a respected or liked person is in fact lying. As a result of some pathological liars tend to be charming, sometimes intelligent, have good jobs, and are sociable, we can be blinded to their obvious social, emotional, and cognitive deficits. Because of this reality, it is very important that we understand how to protect ourselves against a pathological liar. It is even more important that you understand just how damaging these individuals can be. Denial makes it very difficult for some people to believe they would ever be lied on, harmed, or nearly destroyed by a dangerous liar. Sadly, these are the individuals who become victims.
It’s also important to understand that some individuals who pathologically lie also suffer from certain disorders or have been diagnosed with a myriad of diagnoses such as conduct disorder (CD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or ADHD (i.e., some youths with this diagnosis also have ODD or antisocial traits that contribute to frequent lying) for children and adolescents. For adults, the diagnosis might include but are not limited to borderline personality disorder (BPD), histrionic personality disorder (HPD), antisocial personality disorder (i.e., sociopathy), and some psychotic disorders.
How to cope with a pathological liar
There are certainly ways to protect yourself from a destructive person who sends whirlpools of confusion into your life. You should take every lie seriously and strive to remember:
- Avoid engaging the pathological liar: If you sense that you are being lied to, perhaps you are. We all have an “internal compass” that signals trouble or peace, truth or fiction. Trust that. There are situations in which you might feel someone is being untrue but later find out they were telling the truth. But in many cases, we, as humans, are good barometers. If you sense that someone is lying to you, don’t make the person feel comfortable by agreeing, nodding, or laughing about it. A blank stare might do the trick in shutting down the lie.
- Call them out: Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to point out that something isn’t adding up. You could most certainly put it on yourself by saying “for some reason, I am confused. Can you explain that to me again?” In counseling sessions, the use of confrontation can be powerful if used appropriately and with the right amount of tact. Confrontation does not mean creating an argument but creating an acknowledgment that information isn’t adding up. For example, a confrontation might include you stating “…that’s not what I see happening because I spoke with the Principal and he showed me documentation that you skipped school at 2:00 pm on Monday.” Confrontation is using facts to undercut the lie.
- Play “stupid”: I use this technique quite a bit in sessions with adolescents and young children. If I want a youth to open up or I’m looking to build rapport, I make statements such as “…that’s not what I was told, can you help me understand because I’m a bit confused…as always?” Individuals who tend to lie are usually seeking some sort of power over others. If you are able to take a step back and appear unassuming, you can actually become the person “on top” and coax the individual into explaining things so you can evaluate it. You’re not trying to catch the person in a lie per se, but to clarify information in a non-confrontational manner.
- Don’t believe anything until you confirm it: Someone with a track record of lying behaviors should never be believed at face value. The moment you begin to appear as if you believe what the pathological liar is saying, they will run with it. Any kind of approval or trust the pathological liar can sense makes them feel powerful and energized to continue the behavior. It’s always good when speaking to someone who frequently lies, to remain neutral, detached, and focused. You should weigh everything you are being told against the facts.
- Don’t argue or fight with the pathological liar: It’s not worth your energy to argue with someone who lives in a fantasy or psychologically unstable word. Most liars lack an identity and struggle with feelings of insecurity and abandonment. Other pathological liars are simply sociopathic and overly confident. Either way, don’t argue or get into a confrontation with the liar because they will use circular arguing, demean you, and possibly create more lies to use in the future (possibly against you).You will never get to the truth, even with the use of intimidation. In some cases, you might get only half of the truth. It’s best to step back, work around the pathological liar, and keeping a safe distance.
Pathological liars are difficult to live with or work with because you can’t determine what is true and what is false. You also cannot determine when the next lie will come.
I have found in my work that many of the individuals and families who live with pathological liars can also struggle with their own sense of reality. It’s difficult to sometimes to weed out fiction from the truth when all you know is the lies the person tells you. It’s very easy to second guess yourself or question if something is wrong with you.
Call to action
My suggestion to people struggling with this issues is to keep your distance if you can and remain focused on the facts. Be mindful of your emotions and learn to question how you feel about what you are being told by the pathological liar. Questions to ask yourself may include: “Do I feel comfortable with what is being said to me?” “Do I feel foolish or silly while listening to this story?” “Why am I questioning the legitimacy of what is being said to me right now?” The most important goal for anyone who is dealing with a pathological liar is to always remember your dignity and self-respect. A pathological liar typically has very little to no empathy and will take you as far as you let them.
Dike, C. (2008). Pathological lying: Symptom or disease? The Psychiatric Times. Retrieved June 15, 2014, from, http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/pathological-lying-symptom-or-disease.
Winton, R. (2001). Panel ousts Judge for lying. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 15, 2014, from, http://articles.latimes.com/2001/aug/16/local/me-34920.
This article was originally published on April 15, 2015 but has been updated to include updated and comprehensive information. You can find the original article here: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/caregivers/2015/10/pathological-liars-how-to-protect-yourself/.