How To Recognize Pathological Lying
By: Nadia Khan
Updated September 18, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Prudence Hatchett, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH
When you think back to this past week, have you lied to someone about something? If so, what was the reason for your lie? As truthful and honest as we may wish to be, little white lies are a reality of our daily life. Sometimes, we lie to spare someone's feelings. When your mother in law asks if you like the gift she got you, you tell her it's perfect even if you don't agree. Other times, we will lie to avoid difficult situations. When your boss asks you to work all weekend for a co-worker who failed to meet scheduled deadlines, you stoically say you are happy to give up your plans for the good of the team and then vent your resentment about the unreliable co-worker. Whatever your reason may be, the fact remains most people lie and for the most part the little white lies aren't hurting anyone and telling a white lie doesn't make you a liar or a dishonest person. However, when someone lies all the time, it may signal a more serious issue.
The clinical name for this disorder is pseudologia fantastica. Lying can be a stand-alone problem or a symptom of other disorders including psychopathy, narcissistic, and histrionic personality disorders. There is inconclusive research indicating that psychological lying may be a neurological disorder.
There is widespread disagreement among experts about whether pathological lying itself is a true mental disorder. The ambiguity about the cause of pathological lying makes the disorder extremely hard to treat without professional mental health support. Treatment is compounded by the fact that many pathological liars deny telling falsehoods and refuse treatment.
According to Psychologia, pathological lying is not gender specific affecting both men and women equally. The average age where pathological lying may begin is sixteen years; the average age when psychological lying is typically discovered is 22 years. Pathological liars tend to have an average level of intelligence, but this can vary greatly.
Compulsive vs. Pathological Liars
At first glance, compulsive liars and pathological liars may be confused as being one and the same, however, there is a difference between the two. Pathological liars manipulate and deceive others without guilt or regret. Compulsive liars on the other hand seem to have some control over their falsehoods and their lies are often without purpose or direction. They often lie just for the sake of lying whereas pathological liars respond to their agitation, often without situational stimulation. Pathological liars are usually egoistic and have low levels of self-pride. One hallmark of pathological lying is constantly changing stories. Because pathological liars tell so many falsehoods, they often cannot remember their previous lies, so they continually invent new, often contradictory stories.
Do Pathological Liars Believe Their Lies?
If you tell a lie long enough, do you start believing it yourself? Dr. Charles Dike, writing in the Psychiatric Times, explains that pathological liars may "believe their lies to the extent that the belief may be delusional," leading to its alternate name as "wish psychosis;" but he also stated that challenging pathological liars repeatedly can sometimes get them to admit their fabrications. This incongruity indicates that pathological liars may be aware of what they're doing on some level.
It is possible that pathological lying may be rooted in a wish to avoid shame. The lies can escalate to a point where the liar finds it much easier to believe the lie than confront the reality. Embarrassment and remorse don't often have much effect on the behavior of a true pathological liar. Unfortunately, in most cases only a professional can determine if the person lying is a pathological liar and if the lies are delusional or manipulative.
Many tell lies that are grandiose and often unbelievable. They also tend to be extremely sensitive about the subject of lying and will become hostile and defensive if challenged. For those living with a pathological liar, providing irrefutable proof of the falsehood will not bring a positive resolution to the lying. It is more likely that the liar will become extremely angry and attempt to use more lies to counter any evidence presented.
How to Spot a Pathological Liar in Your Life
Many pathological liars fabricate elaborate stories to make themselves feel more successful, valuable, and prominent. A pathological liar who claims to have great wealth but works in a menial position may tell self-soothing lies about his success and monetary resources. Pathological liars invent experiences, relationships, and resources; in short they will go to any lengths necessary to support their stories. So how can you tell if you're in the presence of a pathological liar if they're so good at lying? Thankfully, there are a few things you can look out for:
- Pay attention to their behavior and body language, such as excessive eye contact. They convincingly tell their lies because they are so experienced.
- Listen for any inconsistencies in their stories.
- Problems like substance abuse, frequent job losses, and a history of unstable relationships are all additional indications someone may be a pathological liar.
Pathological liars are unable or unwilling to build stable, long lasting relationships because all their connections are rooted in untruths and dishonesty. They may have multiple failed marriages and strained relationships with parents, siblings, and children. While many people experience occasional loss and failure, pathological liars have a pattern of failure that is often inconsistent with the grandiose stories they tell about their successful, impressive lives.
If you suspect that someone you know may be a pathological liar, read the online test found at Promises Treatment Center. The test can be a helpful starting point for signs to look out for as it provides clear indicators for evaluation and makes you reflect on things by asking:
- Does the person chronically lie about small things? People who are pathological liars tend to lie frequently, even about random and insignificant things like what they ate for dinner or which television show they watched last night. Random lying about inconsequential things is a hallmark of pathological liars.
- Does the person frequently spin elaborate stories that are easily disproved? Pathological liars are known for creating intricate, far-fetched stories that are often unbelievable. They seem to have little regard for credibility and make little effort to develop stories that others might find plausible.
- Does the person become hostile and defensive when challenged? Pathological liars get extremely angry when confronted with proof of their falsehoods. They often balk at innocent questions about their fabrications. Many pathological liars believe their lies and find it more comfortable to lie than tell the truth.
- Does the person often contradict themselves, their past, their contacts, and their achievements? Pathological liars tell stories that are often inconsistent with previous lies. They are usually unconcerned about concealing their inconsistencies. When questioned or confronted, they revert to anger and hostility.
- Does the person show remorse for lying? Pathological liars often do not believe they are lying and have no remorse for their lies. If they are aware of their lies, they do not show it. They are more concerned with the internal gratification they feel than the threat of being revealed as untrustworthy.
Living with a pathological liar is very challenging for the liar's significant other, family members, friends, and co-workers. Spouses and significant others never know where they stand in the relationship. Loving a pathological liar can also mean never feeling secure and knowing that your relationship may be built on a foundation of deceit. People who love pathological liars and are involved with them in any capacity need to establish boundaries for their own mental health care and mental well-being. It's also important to remember you are not alone, being in a relationship with a liar can feel very lonely and isolating but it doesn't have to be. A host of support is available for you if you seek it.
For example, a woman named Sharon married her husband, Eli, after a two-month whirlwind courtship. Shortly after they returned from their honeymoon, she noticed inconsistencies in his stories. He said he was originally from Chicago but later said he was born and raised in Texas. Sharon noticed that he lied about little things like his favorite book or where he went for lunch. She began to question every aspect of their relationship and confronted him with evidence of the inconsistencies. To her horror, he immediately became aggressive. When Sharon tried to get him to go to counseling, he refused. In a desperate effort to save her marriage and her sanity, she went alone.
This is an excellent example of how people involved with pathological liars must acknowledge that professional help is necessary for both the liar and for themselves. If the person you are involved with is unwilling to get help, then you must get help for yourself. Counselors and therapists found online at sites like BetterHelp can help you navigate the confusion and challenges you are facing as you try to salvage your relationship and your own mental health. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"Busola is amazing, I've only had a few sessions with her but she makes me feel listened to. She understands what my primary needs are for each session and addresses them. Moreover, it doesn't feel like just time to talk and unload everything on someone, but she addresses negative behavioral patterns and helps create an action plan for them."
"I have been dealing with quite a slew of issues, but after working with Mackenzie, I feel significantly more able to go forward in my life with effective strategies that match my abilities and goals. Mackenzie guided me toward establishing healthier boundaries, being more self-reflective, relying on both emotions and logic when confronting issues, and finding concrete ways to alleviate stress and anger at issues outside of my control. She is an incredibly skilled and valuable resource."
When dealing with someone who may be a pathological liar, it is important to remember that they gain pleasure from lying. They may not even be aware of the lie because they wrapped up the falsehood in an elaborate fantasy they created to make themselves feel good. Pathological liars get satisfaction and gratification from lying. A parent, sibling, child, or significant other will never be able to convince them to stop lying. Confronting them with irrefutable proof will only create anger and hostility; it will never lead to an end to the fabrications.
The only thing anyone can do is gently encourage the pathological liar to seek help since they need to recognize and deal with their deep rooted issues. As stated above, only a professional can provide an accurate diagnosis to the liar and lay out an appropriate course of care. The problem will not just go away or diminish over time on its own. Confronting a pathological liar with proof of the prevarications never works. The only hope for a positive outcome when dealing with a potential pathological liar is to engage a mental health professional. If they don't want to seek individual counseling, suggest family or couples counseling, since taking small baby steps together may help them to eventually seek appropriate help.
You may have periods where you feel hopeless but there is always support available and ways to move forward. No matter what you're experiencing, with the right tools, you can build honest and fulfilling relationships. Take the first step today.