Woman lying on the phone to her friend

Understanding Pathological Liars: Why All the Lies?

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While the occasional white lie is considered to be a normal part of social interactions, repeated and elaborate fabrications cross into a very different territory. But what do you do when you realise the person you love is a pathological liar?

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. This can occur for a variety of reasons, and ascertaining the root cause of dishonesty in a compulsive liar 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 this complex issue can help you know if your loved one is struggling with this condition, and how to support a compulsive liar.

What is Pathological Lying?

A pathological liar is broadly defined as a person who tells 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.

Similarly, a lie from time to time, such as an occasional lie told to avoid conflict or blame, is problematic but not necessarily a sign that someone is mentally ill.

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, a compulsive liar 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.

Is there a pathological liar test?

Currently, there is no standardised, medically accepted pathological liar test. In order to make this diagnosis, a mental health specialist will need to consider a variety of factors, including whether common characteristics of the condition are present, and how long symptoms of this disorder have been occurring.

What Causes Pathological Lying?

In some cases, pathological lying is a singular disorder known as pseudologia fantastica or factitious disorder, 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 a compulsive liar’s boastful lies about their 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 – a person struggling with anxiety and fear of rejection may also develop into a compulsive liar 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 might cause the sufferer to lie frequently in order 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 a compulsive liar 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 members 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 from a compulsive liar, 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 pathological lying.
  • Encourage professional help – expressing concern without judgement is a critical part of letting a compulsive liar 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.

Finding Your Truth at The Dawn

TRE Yoga at The Dawn Trauma & PTSD Retreat Thailand

Seeking treatment for pathological lying and potentially other underlying mental health conditions can be a daunting process. At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab, we ensure a compassionate, safe, holistic treatment experience that helps people address the root causes of their condition while reaffirming and strengthening the positive parts of the self. Our highly-individualised treatment plans meet the unique needs of each of our clients to offer the best outcomes.

Our unique “Twin Pillars” approach combines the most effective Western psychotherapeutic techniques with proven Eastern wellness practices to address all parts of a mental health condition. Your loved one will come away from treatment with a better understanding of their condition, how to manage stressors and triggers, and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

A Healing Mental Health Retreat in Thailand

Our centre is located on the lush riverbanks of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Just an hour’s flight from the capital city of Bangkok, The Dawn is a world away from the pressures of home, allowing our clients to focus completely on their health and recovery.

If you think that your loved one may be struggling with pathological lying, call us today to learn more about how The Dawn can help them rediscover truth, and reclaim a brighter future.

Q: What is a pathological liar?

A: A pathological liar is broadly defined as a person who tells 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.

Q: How to deal with a pathological liar?

A: Encourage professional help Expressing concern without judgement is a critical part of letting a compulsive liar 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.

Q: What does pathological liar mean?

A: A pathological liar is broadly defined as a person who tells 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.

Q: How to stop being a pathological liar?

A: Seeking treatment for pathological lying and potentially other underlying mental health conditions can be a daunting process. At The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab, we ensure a compassionate, safe, holistic treatment experience that helps people address the root causes of their condition while reaffirming and strengthening the positive parts of the self.

Q: How to end a relationship with a pathological liar?

A: 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 will not go along with pathological lying.

Q: How do you test if someone is a pathological liar?

A: Currently, there is no standardised, medically accepted pathological liar test. In order to make this diagnosis, a mental health specialist will need to consider a variety of factors, including whether common characteristics of the condition are present, and how long symptoms of this disorder have been occurring.

About the Author

John A. Smith is a Senior Psychotherapist at The Dawn and an internationally accredited Addiction Treatment Professional (ISSUP), Certified Life and NLP Coach. He is highly experienced in working with young adults and utilises a range of evidence-based therapies, including SMART Recovery, to help his clients achieve their goals.