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We have all been lied to at one point or another.

We are all familiar with the feeling of doubting whether or not the person’s story adds up or makes sense.

In fact, not being honest with others or even with yourself can be a natural behaviour.

 Lying can be done for a myriad of reasons and sometimes a lie can be helpful and protective. For example, telling a child that their dad can’t take them to the baseball game because he has to work and make money.

When, in reality, dad is day drinking at the bar down the street. The small child can not handle or understand the truth and so a story is concocted in order to protect the child from the truth.

Many of my clients with an OCD diagnosis will “cover-up” the truth in order to avoid facing situations that terrify them, in turn, protecting themselves. “Lies” that are designed to protect are very different from habitual lying.

For one, the driving force of “protective” lies is to prevent the individual from feeling extreme discomfort or doubt for their safety.

Also, the person only engages in the lying behaviour as a way to avoid or get out of whatever they are fearful or uncomfortable of facing.

 The person does not get any adrenaline rush or “high” from telling the lie. Rather, only the feeling of relief when the lie allows them to escape the “dangerous” situation. 

However, what happens when lies become habitual and the person has substantial difficulty stopping themselves from telling them. This maladaptive pattern can cause many problems for the compulsive liar and all of their friends, family, co-workers, and strangers. How can you tell if you are around someone who is compulsive about lying? Here are four ways to identify a pathological liar:

  • This person always seems to have elaborate and dramatic stories that they like to tell. The stories are always out of the ordinary but not totally unrealistic. For example, they will not tell you that they went in a space ship and saw green aliens (unrealistic).

However, they may tell you they were a pilot in the Air Force and were often sent on classified assignments (rare, not impossible). In other words, it’s a story that you would see or hear in a dramatic movie. But most people in real life do not have these dramatic tales.

 This person will have many stories and they are usually always filled with drama and adventure. You may also notice the story has inaccuracies. For example, a lady tells a long and elaborate story at a party about how she knew Elvis Presely and worked for him at Graceland in 1980.

You know that this is not possible because “the king of rock ‘n’ roll” died in 1977. So, you confront the lady with the evidence. Typically, they will just revise the story in order to make the details fit better into place. Unlike a delusion, on some level, the compulsive liar knows the truth. 

  • This is a pattern of behaviour. You begin to realize that every time you have a conversation with this individual you will get these stories and wild tales. 
  • There does not seem to be any external or obvious motivation for the lies.

As stated before, most natural lies are motivated by protecting oneself or guarding from embarrassment.

The pathological liars are usually motivating by some internal reward system that you would not see. Similar to other addictive behavioural patterns, the individual is getting some excitement or “high” off of this habitual behaviour. 

  • You notice inconsistencies in their stories and the story keeps changing.

 For example, the first time you heard the story they were saving someone from being mugged in the street and the next time you hear the story, they were the victim who was being attacked in the street.

 This person will either be the hero or the victim. The story is designed to gain your sympathy or admiration. 

Compulsive lying is very difficult to treat in a therapeutic context. There is a good chance that the habitual liar has a personality disorder.

Talk therapy could potentially make the person worse, especially is the therapist is warm and empathetic and indulges the client in all of their radical tales.

If you are close with someone who you feel is a pathological liar, refusing to listen to all of their stories is the best approach. The last thing you would want to do is enable this compulsive behaviour or be a part of the maladaptive cycle.