Everyone lies. It’s a part of life, whether for better or for worse. Some people find peace in white lies and don’t feel bad about occasionally avoiding the truth to spare a loved one’s feelings. Others, however, see lying, even major lies, as something completely inconsequential.
Pathological lying goes far beyond the standard lies most people tell. Pathological liars lie about all kinds of things, big and small, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Individuals with this personality trait may lie about innocuous things, like weekend plans, or larger topics, like past experiences, work, schooling or relationships. This may seem like nothing more than an obnoxious personality trait — and in some cases, it is — but lying to this level can also be a symptom of a larger problem. When narcissistic pathological lying begins to interfere with someone’s personal life or the lives of those around them, it may be time to consider a conversation with a therapist or other trained mental health professional.
Defining Pathological Lying
Pathological lying is a behavior pattern in which individuals lie chronically or compulsively. Sometimes referred to as mythomania or pseudologia fantastica, pathological lying generally manifests as lying for lying’s sake. In some cases, individuals may lie to make themselves look better, but in others, they may have no good reason to lie or don’t gain anything from the act of lying. Being friends or family members of a pathological liar can be very frustrating, as it’s hard to tell what’s a lie and what isn’t or when a liar can be trusted.
There may be biological drivers behind pathological lying. One study found that central nervous system behavior may influence a propensity for lying, and another found evidence of lying due to an imbalance in the hormone-cortisol ratio. However, due to the differences in the nature of lying and the purposes of lying from one individual to another, there’s not always clear logic behind when or why pathological lying occurs.
Mental Health Disorders
Mental health disorders can and do play a role in pathological lying and may be a contributing factor. In many instances, getting a diagnosis can be the first step to addressing chronic lying.
Determining the difference between lying for social or personal reasons and lying due to mental illness can be a challenge. However, there are often differences in the manifestation of lying in those with mental illnesses versus those who lie for other reasons. For example, there are links between mental illness and believing your own lies; liars with other motivations often don’t believe what they’re saying.
Some of the mental health disorders that cause or contribute to pathological lying include:
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Also called NPD, narcissistic personality disorder manifests as arrogant and self-centered behavior with little regard for other people’s feelings. Narcissistic pathological liars may lie for attention, to make themselves feel better, to feel superior to others or to manipulate others for the purposes of self-gain.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a mental disorder that features intrusive thoughts and feelings, or obsessions, and a strong urge to perform certain behaviors, or compulsions. In some cases, there are ties between OCD and compulsive lying. Lying can be a true compulsion in a person with OCD experiences, or it can be a negative coping method.
- Anxiety Disorders: Anxiety can manifest in numerous ways, from acute episodes to more generalized anxiety. While pathological lying isn’t a defining feature of anxiety as it is with other disorders, such as NPD, anxiety and compulsive lying can sometimes go hand in hand. People with anxiety disorders may lie to protect themselves from anxiety triggers or to handle things like a fear of rejection.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder: Antisocial personality disorder is a serious diagnosis that often involves manipulation and cruelty toward others for the sake of personal amusement. It is often associated with psychopathy. Those with APD might compulsively lie to manipulate the people around them, hurt others’ feelings or otherwise cause harm.
Other Reasons for Pathological Lying
While pathological lying can be linked to mental health disorders, it isn’t always. There are numerous other reasons why people may lie with abandon, including:
- Insecurity: Some people feel very insecure about who they are and might lie in an effort to make themselves feel better or inflate their own sense of self-worth. Lying may also be a defense mechanism to prevent ridicule or social exclusion. Lying under these circumstances is often quite transparent.
- Social status: For those who value social status, lying may be a way to maintain a reputation. For example, communities focused on looks or financial status may look down on behaviors they perceive as lesser. Participants in these kinds of communities, like country clubs or prestigious social organizations, may lie to fit in with their desired peers.
- Humor: Though less common than other reasons, some people may lie often because they find it funny. They may not understand the frustrations that come with being lied to or may believe their lies are so egregious that no one would believe them.
- Substance abuse: Many substance abusers have issues with honesty, but this is generally inspired by a desire to hide signs of abuse rather than lying for attention or sympathy.
Pathological lying can seem harmless, albeit annoying, but it may be the sign of a bigger problem. Compulsive lying can be a symptom of a mental health disorder or even substance abuse. If pathological lying is a problem in yourself or others, therapy can be a good place to start in getting to the bottom of an issue. Confronting another person about their lying can be challenging but may be a good way to bring a problem to light. When addressing a friend or loved one’s lying, be prepared with a plan, including examples of lies that have harmed relationships or other life circumstances.
Getting help for mental health issues, including conditions that may lead to pathological lying, can be a critical step. Please contact FHE Health today to learn more about our comprehensive treatment options.