PSYCHOLOGY: Living with a Compulsive Liar


    A compulsive liar is someone who lies repeatedly with ease and finds comfort in it. The compulsive liar may even continue to lie when confronted with the truth in strightforward facts. Getting a compulsive liar to admit he or she lied can be nearly impossible, and finding treatment for them is a difficult and often futile task.  Such persons can cause serious damage in the workplace, family, or social settings.  For those with a compulsive liar in their lives, DNN offers a simple primer on the condition.

    Is compulsive lying a psychiatric disorder?

    Compulsive lying disorder is not an actual documented psychiatric disorder but a term used to describe what might be a symptom of an underlying psychiatric disorder, most commonly borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, or narcissism. Not every compulsive liar suffers from a psychiatric illness, but there is ordinarily a root cause for the behavior. Psychologists agree that those who suffer from these psychiatric disorders lie for a variety of reasons, some of which might appear obvious to others, while others might seem subtle or obscure.

    What does a compulsive liar hope to achieve through lying?

    1. Admiration and Popularity:  The person seeks a reward or praise for something he or she did not do. The person might also expect praise for ordinary actions that others would consider routine.  This craving for attention and esteem from others is primarily to combat feelings of inadequacy. Such persons might also seek attention by pretending to be victims of crimes or creating other dramatic situations that didn’t actually occur.
    2. Control and Manipulation: The liar wants to attain an object of desire that he or she cannot obtain without deception. This person will continue to lie as long as that object remains unattainable.  The liar may achieve a certain thrill from “getting away with it”.  The liar may also continue or expand upon the lies in order to manipulate the sympathies and emotions of others.  Liars may employ a technique known as gas lighting, in which they convince others that only the liar knows the truth, and the realities of the others are false.
    3. Increased Self-Esteem: The liar will often be motivated by feelings of inadequacy caused by financial, marital, or social problems that are deeply-rooted and long-term. These people will frequently make up stories about themselves for empathy or sympathy.  Many of these stories cast them in the role of hero, smart person, victor, or victim.  The liar fears that any bad quality they have will cause others to reject them, so they will exaggerate or invent good ones.
    4. Hiding Failure:  The liar will lie to avoid getting into trouble and will attempt to make others feel responsible for a situation the liar has caused.  This can create serious problems in the workplace, and such people may find it difficult to maintain stable employment.  It also can create havoc in social situations, leading to the liar becoming marginalized or excluded from social circles.  This, in turn, usually motivates the compulsive liar to lie even more.

    What is the difference between a pathological and compulsive liar?

    The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there is a subtle and important difference.  Pathological liars, who are also called sociopaths, lie for seemingly no reason at all.  Often the lies will appear extremely convincing.  People also tend to think that the subject of the lie is something that nobody would ever bother lying about.  These might include lies about fictitious jobs, fictitious family members and friends, fictitious illnesses or ailments, and fictitious personal history.  A sociopath will often lie simply to see if they can trick people, seeing it as a form of control and advantage.

    Part of the success of the sociopathic liar is his or her ability to lie instantaneously, in any situation, and provide every elaborate and involved stories.  Often these lies are detected when two or more people compare notes and discover many elements of the stories change on re-tellings.  Even if confronted with evidence of the lies, the sociopathic liar will continue to lie.  One of the hallmarks of a sociopath is a complete lack of empathy for other people. They will often claim great love or admiration for people, but it is always another lie; sociopaths, being unable to empathize or sympathize with others, are incapable of love or concern for others.

    I have this liar in my life who causes all kinds of drama and mayhem.  What can I do?

    Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do.  Confronting the liar doesn’t work because the liar will only try to lie his or her way out of it.  Appeals to decency don’t work because the liar lacks empathy.  Extracting promises of better behavior doesn’t work because promises mean nothing to the liar; they are simply more lies.

    One needs to remember that compulsive liars usually have an underlying psychiatric disorder or addiction. Therefore, treatment must start with the disorder or addiction in the hope that with stabilization, the lying will decrease or stop altogether. Even this is not assured, however.  Typical treatments for the underlying disorders are described on the website for the National Institute of Mental Health.

    Will medication help?

    There is no medication that can make a liar stop lying.  A doctor prescribes medication based on the underlying psychiatric disorder, and the medications can vary. Antidepressants or anti-psychotics are frequently prescribed  in these cases. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the process of changing your thoughts to change your behavior, is a common therapy for many psychiatric disorders, including compulsive lying.

    Will treatment work?

    With compulsive or sociopathic liars, treatment is not guaranteed to work.  Many remain liars for life.  Success always depends on how willing the liar is to seek help. However, in the case of compulsive and sociopathic liars, the percentage who actually seek help is extremely low, and the success rate among them hit and miss.

    Getting the sufferer to take medication is the easiest part of the treatment, but medication alone will not change the behavior.  Psychotherapy takes considerably more work.  The person must be an active participant and follow through with the entire treatment plan. One major problem with compulsive liars is that they are often unable or unwilling to tell the truth in therapy, which can derail their chance of reaching treatment plan goals. Thus, even those who have treatment might not succeed in altering their behavior.  The quality of the therapist is often key.  One who is particularly perceptive to knowing when a person is not telling the truth may be able to help the liar realize what he or she been doing and effect it has on his or her life.

    How can I get help for myself or a friend?

    If you believe you have a compulsion to lie, seem to lie more often than not, or feel as though you cannot stop lying, get professional help. The best place to begin is by talking to your physician.  A physician will usually refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist for a psychiatric evaluation. Many cities and suburbs also have a local mental health center, which is there to provide information on resources in your area including counselors and support groups. Googling can also help.

    If you want to seek help on somebody else’s behalf, it is a lot more complicated. Confronting someone about a lying problem is a difficult and often frustrating task.  A compulsive or sociopathic liar usually becomes defensive and will try to resist treatment. The more you insist, the more the liar will resist.  Usually, there is little more to do than to express your concern and offer help.  The liar will frequently continue to resist this, which can be exhausting and frustrating for those who are seeking to help.

    Unfortunately, the prognosis is not good in most cases like these.  If the liar remains unwilling to get professional help, you ultimately are faced with the decision of whether or not it is worth the energy and time to stay involved.