What is a 'pathological liar'?
It is a person who lies on a regular basis, often in an irrational and uncontrollable manner, and who is unable to see the negative consequences of the lie. The lies they tell usually don’t serve the long term needs of the person. We all tell lies, ordinarily because those lies are beneficial to ourselves (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) and sometimes to the person being lied too (“No, you are not fat!”) Most of those lies are based on our evaluation of a later outcome. However, the pathological liar doesn’t envisage consequences.
What would turn someone into a pathological liar?
Many liars suffer from addictions such as gambling, compulsive shopping, substance abuse, kleptomania, etc. and lying helps them hide their addiction from others as well as themselves. Pathological lying is generally caused by a combination of factors, which may include sexual or physical abuse in childhood, dysfunctional family, parental overprotection, sibling rivalry, substance abuse in the family, mental retardation, learning disabilities or another type of cerebral dysfunction.
Pathological lying is practically always caused by low self-esteem (Read article on Self-esteem). The lie is a bit like a drug: it makes the liar feel good for a little while. An accumulation of many lies creates a false reality that may appear to reinforce the liar’s self-esteem, but it only protects the ego and keeps the liar from dealing with everyday problems.
The three main reasons for lying on a regular basis are: trying to escape reality, doing it as a habit and covering up an addiction.
Escape from reality
Reality and fiction are mixed together. The stories appear real on the surface but they start falling apart over time and they may need to be changed in case of confrontation or disbelief. The liar is extremely anxious and exhibits common signs of lying (Read article on Signs of lying.) The lies are used to hide a dreadful self-image and the fear that others may find out. About 30% of those liars have brain dysfunction.
In this case, the lies are so frequent that the habitual liar doesn’t think about the outcome and doesn’t care whether a statement is true or not. The motives for lying can be to take advantage of a situation, misguide someone, cover up embarrassment or lack of knowledge, avoid confrontation or punishment, avoid disappointment, receive praise, or even just for fun! Those lies come out effortlessly without anxiety, so there wouldn’t be the usual signs of lying. Also, the habitual liars are easy to catch. This type of lying comes from childhood. Lack of appreciation when telling the truth may have brought dreadful consequences; therefore, lying involved less punishment and was more desirable.
People suffering from drug addiction, alcohol addiction, sex addiction (affairs), kleptomania, pathological gambling, compulsive shopping or a similar addiction lie to fulfill their present needs and avoid embarrassment. They don’t learn from past negative experiences and often suffer from depression or substance abuse in the family. Since most addictions are based on lying and deceit, 12-step programs - such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous – always start the healing process with admitting the truth and stopping the lies.
How to deal with a pathological liar?
In any relationship with a compulsive liar, the first thing to do is to keep records on a daily basis. Write down what was said. Besides protecting your sanity, it will provide evidence and allow you to stay objective.
If the pathological liar is your partner or a close family member, you will want to help this person. Never take a lie as a form of rejection. Remember that pathological lying is a sickness based on low self-esteem. By praising the liar – not the lies – you may help improve their self-image.
You may also want to make the liar accountable for his or her behavior. Tell the person that even if he or she chooses to lie, you are aware of it and you know it is not acceptable. However you still love him or her.
Remember that a pathological liar has a sickness. Try to understand where the sickness is coming from. You may want to seek counseling for this person, as well as for yourself. If you can’t afford professional therapy, contact a social worker and find out what social programs are available in your area.
If the compulsive liar is a coworker who is lying about personal issues, avoid getting involved with this person. If they are lying about coworkers and work, hence creating work-related problems that may lead to a hostile environment, get a few colleagues together and talk to your supervisor. If you suspect your direct supervisor to be a pathological liar, keep written records for a while and then go to your Human Resource department.
One final piece of information, when dealing with a pathological liar, avoid getting emotional and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Good luck!