Notice how often the person seemingly lies. Compulsive liars lie on a regular and ongoing basis; it is a habit in which they participate almost all the time.
Consider the apparent ease with which a person tells a lie. If they appear uncomfortable or nervous, then chances are that they are not a compulsive liar. Lying comes naturally to a compulsive liar, who looks and feels more comfortable lying than telling the truth.
Focus on the types of things that the person lies about. A compulsive liar often lies about anything and everything, even small, seemingly insignificant things.
Evaluate the motivation behind the person's lying. If the person seems to lie simply when it is beneficial for them or when it gets them out of an awkward situation, they are probably not a compulsive liar. Someone who is a compulsive liar generally lies because doing so is a habit and not because they are trying to manipulate others.
Think about the person's personality characteristics to determine whether they fit the stereotype of a compulsive liar. Often, compulsive liars begin this habit to get attention from others or to make themselves appear better in some way, so a compulsive liar may have issues with poor self-esteem.
Examine whether a potential compulsive liar recognizes their behavior. Because lying is such an ingrained habit for a compulsive liar, they may not even recognize that they are doing it, or they may deny the behavior.
Look at the person's ability to remain consistent in what they say. A compulsive liar may have a difficult time keeping their stories straight since they have injected so many lies into what they have told other people.
Many people find themselves telling a lie at least once in their life. It may feel difficult not to tell the truth, but at the time, it just seemed like the right thing to do. Most people feel a little bit of remorse over it and regret their actions later. Some vow to be more truthful in the future.
Even though these are common feelings after telling a fib, compulsive liars do not feel the same way about their actions. People that lie on a regular basis have no remorse or regret when they don't tell the truth. Many times, they don't even think twice about it. They go on lying just as easily as telling the truth.
Why is it easy for liars to tell a lie? It's become a habit for them. Just like any other bad habit, once you start doing it, you become more comfortable with it. After you become more comfortable with something, it's much harder to stop than to continue.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Compulsive Liars
It can take some time to come to the realization that someone is lying compulsively. At first, it's easy to take everything a person says as the truth. After some time, you may begin to realize that many of the things this person is telling you simply don't add up. You begin to see that life around this person doesn't correlate to the life the person portrays. This is only the beginning.
Here are some more symptoms of compulsive liars that may not be as straightforward.
- Low self-esteem: This is a hallmark of most people with a compulsive lying disorder. Deep-seated feelings of inferiority drive such a person to fabricate a persona that makes them feel more worthy.
- Other negative personality traits: Compulsive lying is often a secondary impulse related to other personality disorders. Watch for narcissistic and/or manipulative behavior. Inappropriate emotions and impulsive reactions to situations can be another tip off that something is not quite right.
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): People suffering from ADHD also demonstrate impulsive behavior, and it's possible for this to escalate into uncontrollable lying if not kept in check.
- Addictions: People with addictions to gambling, alcohol, drugs or other activities also are much more likely to lie compulsively.
- Bipolar Disorder: Sufferers of a bipolar disorder seesaw through periods of depression and mania. Depression is usually accompanied by low self-esteem and feeling like life is dreadful. Mania is the complete opposite, and a person feels like life is grand and nothing can get in the way. Impulsive behavior is common during this period, and it becomes easier to tell a lie than face reality.
- Inability to face reality: Even when confronted with the cold facts, a true compulsive liar will never admit the truth. Attempts to make the person do so will result in further lying and perhaps even emotional outbursts designed to deflect attention from the lying.
Help for Compulsive Liars
Treatment for compulsive liars involves therapy and a lot of work outside of the therapist's office. Is it possible to break the cycle of lying? Yes, but it's extremely difficult to break the addiction to the attention that the lying garners, and here is the root of the problem. The liar will have to actually admit to having a problem with lying. Since this strikes at the person's self-esteem, some find it impossible to do.
No one can force a compulsive liar to get help. This is a decision that each person has to make for his or herself. However, if the original self-esteem issue can be addressed and healed, it is more likely that the cycle of lying will gradually cease.
“What’s wrong with me? I can never seem to tell the truth: I’m a compulsive liar!”
“Thank you for being honest with me!” (I presumed she was being.)
Turns out Claire had lied since she was little. Recently she’d lied at work, telling everyone she was terminally ill with cancer. She’d got a huge amount of sympathy and attention, not to mention extended time off. Now she’d been found out and fired.
In her time she’d lied about knowing famous people (she didn’t), winning money (she hadn’t), and not cheating on or having stolen from boyfriends (she had). Now Claire felt she’d burnt all her bridges, friends had fled, and work opportunities dried up. She was desperate to stop compulsively lying and have a fresh start - somewhere new.
So, do you lie?
Compulsive lying and the art of diplomacy
I’m not talking about those everyday little pieces of expediency most of us indulge in:
“How do I look?”
Thinks: "Like a trussed up bag of festering turnips."
Says: “You look fantastic!”
And perhaps the most common lie:
“How are you?”
“Fine.” (ready to leap under a tram)
‘White lies’ smooth life because brutal frankness and long-term friendship make for uneasy bedfellows. Neither am I talking about unconscious dishonesty, ‘cognitive dissonance’, in which we kid ourselves.
No, I’m talking about compulsive and purposeful lying. The kind that tangles you up and eventually and inevitably gets sussed.
There are things you can do to stop the compulsive liar in you from rearing its ugly head. But first…
What causes compulsive lying?
There are many reasons why someone might compulsively lie. Claire lied to get attention to feel special. She had often lied that she was ill. This is sometimes known as Münchausen syndrome (1), a condition in which the ‘sufferer’ feigns disease, illness, or injury in order to gain either material advantages or attention from other people. As a child, she felt pushed out on the fold when her younger siblings had come along. She’d started lying to classmates and her parents very early on.
- Because they behave badly but want to still ‘look good’ - as with the politician who has an affair or cheats on his expense account, then lies in an attempt to cover it up (Westminster, anyone?).
- To genuinely save someone else’s feelings.
- To control other people. People may lie about how much power/status they have and then threaten people with that fictitious power and influence.
- For self-aggrandizement in order to make themselves appear wonderful, especially gifted, more interesting, or exciting - either through a sense of inadequacy or overly high self-esteem.
- Through sheer force of habit - “Lying is as easy as breathing for me!”
Because you are reading this, I’m presuming you are sick of compulsively lying. So here are some ideas to help you start being more honest.
Tip 1: “To thine own self be true” - regardless of what others are doing
In the recent ‘expenses scandal’ in the UK, many cheating politicians defended their own public money pocketing by protesting that: “Everyone else had been doing it!” In some ways, lying has become more accepted and even expected.
In a recent survey in the UK, 41% of people said they would cash a winning lottery ticket even if it didn’t belong to them and more than two-thirds of people have stolen stationery from work (2).
You know what is honest, so be honest regardless of a dishonest group-think culture - don’t hide behind the excuse of widespread lying.
Tip 2: Remember the truth is often easier
“Always tell the truth. That way, you don’t have to remember what you said.” Mark Twain
Lying is a real strain. You have to remember so much and, no matter how elaborate your twisting and turning, you’ll eventually come unstuck. As Claire said on one of our sessions, “You know, it’s a relief not to lie!”
Cast off lying and you’ll find life instantly becomes much less stressful.
Tip 3: Know what lying is
It’s so easy to lie to ourselves about what lying is. Not telling the truth and remaining silent is a form of lying: ‘lying through omission’. In the same way, people may assume that failing to do the right thing is not the same as doing the wrong thing. In one research study in the UK, just 38% of items deliberately left in the street found their way back to their rightful owners (3).
Claire told me that one boyfriend had asked her why she hadn’t told him she’d cheated on him. She’d replied: “Because you didn’t ask!”
Don’t make excuses to yourself. Not telling the truth, when you know what it is, is lying.
Tip 4: Stop compulsive lying to protect your reputation (because the truth is out there)
Apart from all the ethical considerations, lying doesn’t work - not in the long run. Once you are unmasked as a habitual liar, you’ve blown it. People will take you far less seriously as a person. Trust may be impossible to ever win back.
As good old ‘honest Abe’ Lincoln said: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem.”
Claire had destroyed the confidence of just about everyone and felt forced to move on to new pastures.
Stop and think: The truth has a way of making itself known, and when you lose people’s trust, you lose the power to be heard by other people - because they’ll stop listening. (Remember what happened to the boy who cried, "Wolf!")
Tip 5: Stop compulsive lying one step at a time
Claire had been lying for decades, all the time, every day. She was good at lying (which hadn’t stopped the truth from making itself known to the people in her life).
I asked her to start telling “small truths”, being honest here and there when normally she wouldn’t be. For example, when she spoke to someone new she was to tell that she had left school and become a hairdresser at 16 instead of her usual story of having picked up a Master’s degree in marine biology. She was to tell people her real town of origin and be honest about her parents (dropping the story of being adopted). Bit by bit, I encouraged her to start to tell small truths so truth telling, in itself, could become a habit.
Start by promising to yourself you’ll tell people three true things about yourself a day.
Tip 6: Stop compulsive lying by meeting your emotional needs honestly
Much human behaviour is unconsciously motivated by the need to meet emotional needs. We all have needs for a sense of safety and security, attention, status, meaning, excitement, intimacy and love, connection to others, self-esteem, and so forth. Now think about times when you’ve compulsively lied; times when the lies seemed to ‘come from nowhere’.
What was the drive behind the lying? Wanting to be included? Wanting to be thought highly of? Wanting to be loved, even? Wanting excitement? Really think about this.
Lying to get your life needs met is a form of stealing. Wanting to gain love, respect from others, or self-esteem without putting in real efforts is theft in a way.
Think about some real ways in which you can honestly meet these needs for self-importance, security, or whatever drive had been behind your lying. And make these the base from which you interact with others.
Tip 7: Use self-hypnosis to stop compulsive lying
For Claire, lying had come to feel a part of who she was; she called it “instinctive”. We worked hypnotically to great effect. I got her to hypnotically experience a type of situation in which she’d be typically tempted to tell a whopper and I helped her mentally rehearse telling the truth regardless of whether it was less “colourful” or exciting. Each time she did this, she felt an enormous flood of relief and felt closer to the person with whom she was communicating.