Persistent dishonesty is a clear sign of something gone wrong in a friend or loved one. As trust is a fundamental component of relationships, repeated violations of it indicate serious problems are afoot. Lying can occur for a variety of reasons, and ascertaining the root cause of the dishonesty is critical in addressing the problem and beginning to rebuild relationships.
Pathological lying is a unique type of mental health disorder that often co-occurs with other mental health conditions. Understanding the nuances of pathological lying can help you know if your loved one is struggling with this condition, and how to support them.
What is Pathological Lying?
Pathological lying is broadly defined as telling compulsive, elaborate lies. The lies may vary in terms of function – while some may be told in order to portray the person in a positive or sympathetic light, others may have no clear purpose. Some common characteristics of pathological lying include:
Lying without any benefit or reason – do you notice your friend lying seemingly only for the sake of lying? This is a common trait of pathological lying, and a clear sign that lying has become reflexive and habitual.
Telling lies that are complicated, dramatic, and detailed – though the stories might seem far-fetched, the convincing way they are told in a pathological lie can make them seem believable.
Believing (or seeming to believe) their own lies – some experts believe that because people who pathologically lie do so with great ease and frequency, they may not always remember what is real, and what they’ve made up.
The lies may make the person telling them seem like a hero, or a victim – pathological liars sometimes tell lies to gain sympathy or admiration. If you notice someone frequently lying about their health, wealth, or career status, this could be a sign of pathological lying.
What Makes a Pathological Lie Different from Other Lies?
There is a significant difference between pathological lies and white lies. A white lie, or a lie told to avoid hurt or ill-feelings in another person, is a common by-product of many social interactions. You could truthfully tell your friend, for example, that you think his new haircut makes him look ten years older, but you don’t want to make him feel bad, so you instead say it looks great. White lies are told without any ill-intent, and are generally considered to be harmless.
Pathological lies are continuous, compulsive, complex, and can occur for no apparent reason. This could include creating a completely false personal history, making up a fictional relationship with a celebrity, or claiming to be suffering from a dire illness. When further questioned, your loved one might give quick and detailed responses that only vaguely answer the question. Despite scepticism or frustration from others with the lack of truthfulness, pathological liars often display little concern or guilt about getting found out.
What Causes Pathological Lying?
In some cases, pathological lying is a singular disorder known as pseudologia fantastica, in which the person’s main symptom is the compulsive need to lie about both big and small issues for no clear reason. However, psychiatrists have found that pathological lying is often connected to other mental health conditions, particularly personality disorders. Some common conditions linked to pathological lying include:
Narcissistic Personality Disorder – the exaggerated sense of self-importance that is a key characteristic of NPD can be manifested in boastful lies about one’s personal accomplishments, social connections, or career achievements.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder – pathological lying has been found in some people struggling with OCD as a negative coping mechanism, employed to create affiliative relationships with others or to attempt to cover their OCD symptoms.
Anxiety Disorders – people struggling with anxiety and fear of rejection may also pathologically lie as a way to try and protect a sensitive psyche.
Antisocial Personality Disorder – people living with this disorder often display pathological lying as a key symptom, and may use lies to gain status or manipulate others.
Other factors may also influence the development of pathological lying. For example, childhood trauma can result in the sufferer relying on lies to create a persona that can withstand the negative environment, a habit that can persist into adulthood. Some scientists also believe that different hormone levels, specifically higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol, may also play into whether a person becomes a pathological liar.
How to Help a Pathological Liar?
For adults, pathological lying can be a difficult condition to treat, as lying has often become habitual and automatic. Telling lies can activate the “risk and reward” centre in the brain, meaning that the thrill of telling a lie and the sense of accomplishment the person feels when they’ve gotten away with it can become addictive. This type of addiction, combined with the potential presence of other underlying mental health conditions, can complicate the desire for people who pathologically lie to seek treatment on their own.
Friends and family can be a critical source of support and encouragement for people struggling with pathological lying. If you are trying to have a conversation with a loved one about their lying, it is helpful to keep a few key points in mind:
It’s not personal – remember that pathological lying is not about deceiving you specifically, but is compulsive and often linked to a mental health condition.
Be supportive, yet firm – it is easy to get frustrated and lose your temper when faced with persistent dishonesty, however this is likely to be counterproductive. Hold your ground, but be kind.
Don’t engage with a lie – if your loved one begins to lie, you can ask questions that can dismantle the lie, or refuse to engage further until you can have a truthful discussion. Let them know that you support them, but you will not go along with a lie.
Encourage professional help – expressing concern without judgement is a critical part of letting people know you genuinely care about their wellbeing. Helping to connect your loved one with information or resources about pathological lying and its related mental health conditions may be useful in supporting their decision to seek treatment.