Spotting The Signs: How To Easily Identify A Potential Pathological Liar's Deception

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant
Updated October 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Pathological lying is more than just being dishonest from time to time. Instead, it involves an individual's persistent habit of deceiving others—but usually without a clear motivation for doing so. Despite its potentially harmful effects, pathological liars may not be fully aware of its impact on themselves and those around them. That's why learning to recognize this tendency in yourself or others can help you know what type of support it may be useful to pursue. Let’s explore how to recognize a pathological or compulsive liar, learn what may cause this tendency, and find out how to handle it.

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What Is Pathological Lying?

The American Psychological Association has defined pathological lying as “a persistent, compulsive tendency to tell lies out of proportion to any apartment advantage that can be achieved.”

Pathological or compulsive liars may lie frequently and excessively and may have difficulty distinguishing between reality and what they’ve invented. They may or may not understand the consequences of their behavior, believing in some cases that they are telling “white lies.” They may have trouble sticking to the truth—even if it becomes clear that their lies might be causing harm to themselves or others. While lying in and of itself is a common human behavior, it’s typically done for a reason—such as to avoid social embarrassment or upset. When a person lies frequently and for no obvious reason, it’s likely to be characterized as pathological. 

Pathological lying may also exist alongside other mental health issues and conditions like factitious disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. In the case of narcissistic personality disorder, a person’s inflated sense of self-importance is bolstered by their compulsive lying. While less common, pathological lying can also play a part in borderline personality disorder (BPD). In those cases, people experiencing BPD may lie in order to manipulate others, many times due to impulsivity or a fear of abandonment.

Common Traits Associated With Pathological Lying

There are numerous signs of pathological lying, though each case can be different. Someone who engages in pathological lying will typically exhibit some or all of the following traits or tendencies:

  • Telling frequent and exaggerated lies. People with this tendency may be a habitual liar and engage in deception excessively, and their lies are likely to be elaborate and complicated. 
  • Rationalizing lies. It’s common for those with this tendency to try and justify their own lies, even in the face of proof to the contrary. They may also make excuses or manipulate the facts to maintain their false stories.
  • Portraying themselves in a positive light. In the lies they create, they’re likely to portray themselves as the victim or the hero rather than anyone who was ever at fault. Pathological liars lie for many reasons and may do so to garner sympathy or praise.
  • Lacking remorse. Someone who engages in pathological lying may not feel sorry or remorseful for habitual lying. They may be confident in their lies, even when they’re obviously not true.
  • Changing their story or denying the truth. When people lie and they are confronted with evidence that contradicts those lies, they may change their story or deny the truth altogether. They may also try to manipulate others to maintain their false story.
  • Blaming others for their lies. They may try to deflect blame or shift responsibility onto others. They may also try to deceive others to avoid being caught or held accountable for their behavior. In other cases, they may blame others in order to maintain the false sense that their excessive lying behavior will never be identified.

What Causes Pathological Lying?

The cause of pathological lying behaviors can vary and may be influenced by a combination of genetic, neurological, environmental, and psychological factors. That said, there are a few key elements that are thought to play a role in the development of this trait.

Genetic And/Or Neurological Factors

There may be a genetic or neurological basis for pathological lying behavior. Some studies suggest that specific brain abnormalities may be associated with pathological lying, and some researchers believe that pathological lying may be inherited.

Trauma Or Abuse

Experiencing trauma or abuse may increase the risk of the development of pathological lying tendencies. People who have been through these types of life experiences may be telling lies as a coping mechanism to avoid facing difficult emotions or situations.

Mental Health Disorders Or Issues

Pathological lying may also be a symptom of mental health issues, such as antisocial personality disorder, anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or low self-esteem. These and other mental health disorders may be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which can be a valuable resource when identifying people who lie pathologically. In some cases, an individual may lie excessively as a way of coping with their symptoms. Working with a qualified mental health professional might help a person better understand the underlying causes of their behavior and learn to develop strategies to address and overcome pathological lying and any other distressing or problematic symptoms they may be experiencing. It may also lead to getting a professional mental health diagnosis related to their pathological lying.

What To Do When A Loved One Exhibits Pathological Lying Behaviors

Having someone in your life who lies pathologically can be difficult. The most helpful approach for them will typically be to approach the situation with empathy and the understanding that their behaviors may be an unhealthy coping mechanism for past trauma or an undiagnosed mental health disorder. Encouraging them to seek medical advice or mental health support may be constructive. Threatening them with punishments (for example, saying you will subject them to a lie detector test) may not be helpful in improving their situation. 

However, it’s also important to defend yourself and your own mental well-being. Being in any kind of relationship with someone with this tendency can be deeply frustrating since there’s typically no obvious reason for the lies—and because the frequent dishonesty can make it difficult or even impossible for real trust or intimacy to be established. When engaging with a person that is displaying a compulsive pattern of lying, remember that they’re unlikely to admit to their lies when confronted. You might encourage them to be themselves around you, reminding them that they don’t need to lie to impress you. If you notice them beginning to tell a lie, it may be helpful to avoid engaging at all. If their behaviors begin to negatively impact you, setting firm, healthy boundaries in regard to how much you’ll engage with them can be a good way to defend yourself.

Seek Help To Overcome Pathological Lying. Live Honestly.

How Therapy Can Help

As mentioned, pathological lying could be a symptom of a mental health condition or mental illness. Pathological lying needs intervention with a professional; one cannot overcome it just by searching for how to stop lying online or reading scientific reviews like Pathological Lying Revisited. Consulting with a qualified mental health professional—or encouraging a loved one with this tendency to do so—may be a helpful first step in addressing it. Even if not, therapy may provide the individual with a safe space to explore any other potential underlying issues related to this behavior. If someone close to you is exhibiting these tendencies and they have negatively impacted you, seeking therapy for yourself may also be a helpful way to express your emotions about it, learn to set appropriate boundaries, and find healing. Therapy may also be helpful even if you or your loved one isn’t experiencing clinically significant impairment. 

Today, there are different options to choose from when it comes to seeking therapy. For those who prefer to connect with a provider in person, searching for qualified counselors in their area may be helpful. For those who are interested in the relative convenience, availability, and affordability of online therapy, trying out a platform like BetterHelp (instead of an in-person clinical practice) is the next step to consider. You’ll fill out a brief questionnaire about your needs and preferences and will get matched with a licensed therapist accordingly. You can then meet with them via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that both online and in-person therapy can provide similar benefits to people in most cases, so you can typically choose the format that feels most comfortable for you. See below for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

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Pathological lying is characterized by a person who tends to lie repeatedly for no apparent reason. It may be a sign of other underlying mental health conditions, which is why it’s typically recommended that the individual meet with a therapist to address this behavior. If someone in your life is displaying traits of pathological lying, you can seek support from a therapist as well.

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