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How to Deal with Pathological Lying

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Everyone tells lies from time to time. It would be virtually impossible to go through life only telling the truth and, even if you did, the people in your life probably wouldn’t like you very much. The point is that telling a lie or untruth is a very common human experience. While we strive to be honest, sometimes white lies are necessary so that we don’t hurt people’s feelings. However, pathological lying is a completely different thing that can cause lots of issues in day-to-day life. 

What Is Pathological Lying?

Pathological lying is the more common name for pseudologia fantastica, which itself is also known as mythomania. This is a psychiatric phenomenon that involves a combination of fact and fiction involving fantasized events and self-aggrandizing personal roles. 

What separates pathological lies from normal everyday lies is the motive. With most lies, a person is either trying to gain something and benefit or to hide something to avoid being stressed or embarrassed. 

Pathological lies rarely achieve either result and are often completely meaningless. A pathological liar will often have no discernible reason to lie other than seemingly just for the sake of it. Research is still unclear as to whether or not a pathological liar is even aware of their behavior or is capable of thinking rationally in terms of their lies. Additionally, there is little firm research and data, but there are beliefs that pathological lying may not be its own mental illness but rather a symptom of a larger one

Common Traits of Pathological Liars 

Pathological lying has been studied since 1891, when the German physician Anton Delbrueck used the term pseudologia fantastica to describe the compulsions of his patients that told extreme and fantastical lies. 

Over the decades there have been more studies into the phenomenon of pathological lying and, while there is no clear-cut definition of a pathological liar, there are certain key characteristics that help to identify them. This is a list of the common traits:

  • Chronic storytelling or lies that are unrelated to or completely out of proportion to any clear benefit.
  • The stories and lies are often extremely dramatic, highly detailed, complex, colorful, and fantastic in nature.
  • Most often, the teller of the story is portrayed as either an incredible hero or a sympathetic victim. The story would seem to specifically be crafted in order to achieve acceptance, admiration, and sympathy.
  • Sometimes a pathological liar will believe their own lies, indicating they fall somewhere between conscious lying and delusion. 

Normal Lies 

It’s safe to say that most people will lie at least once per day on average. These are considered to be “white lies” and are generally harmless. A white lie is most easily defined as a harmless fib that has no malicious intent and is often told to spare another person’s feelings.

A quick example would be saying that you really enjoyed the meal your partner cooked despite it not being particularly tasty. Something that is not necessarily the truth but yields no personal gain and only serves to the benefit of the other person. Compared to a pathological liar, white lies are much less of an issue and are important to differentiate.

What Causes Pathological Lying?

There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on the topic of pathological lying. Debates about whether or not pathological lying is just the symptom of another mental illness or a mental illness itself have raged on and will continue. But there are some things that are known medical facts in terms of pathological lying. Here are a few of the different leading theories on what causes someone to become a pathological liar:

Factitious Disorder 

A factitious disorder — sometimes referred to as Munchausen’s syndrome — is a medical condition in which a person will act as though they are physically or mentally ill when they are indeed healthy. Additionally, there is Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, which is when an individual will lie about another having an illness or impairment. The cause of factitious disorder is unknown, but some of the popular theories include:

  • Biological or genetic influences
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • A personality disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression

Personality Disorder 

It’s possible that pathological lying is a symptom of certain personality disorders. Some of the more likely disorders are:

  • Borderline Personality Disorder: This condition makes it difficult for a person to control and regulate their emotions. Symptoms like severe mood swings and high levels of instability and insecurity are also experienced. 
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder: The individual has intense and fluctuating emotions and also possesses concern with prestige, power, and an inflated ego. Often they will act selfishly, manipulatively, and have difficulty experiencing empathy for others. 
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder: Also known as being a sociopath, a person with this disorder often has a disregard for the rights and emotions of others. Although lying with this condition is generally used for personal gains, there have been some cases where a patient will lie pathologically as well.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Although a little rarer, there are studies of a person showing signs of pathological lying possessing similar symptoms to individuals with frontotemporal dementia. This is a type of dementia that affects the frontal and temporal regions of the brain and causes drastic changes in behavior and language.  

Some changes may include:

  • Inappropriate social behavior
  • Lack of empathy
  • Changes to food preferences
  • Compulsive behaviors 
  • Boredom
  • Agitation

How To Deal With a Pathological Liar

Having someone in your life that is a pathological liar can be extremely frustrating to deal with especially on a daily basis. The lies themselves are often pointless, and that is exactly what makes them so irritating to tolerate and makes even having a simple conversation very challenging. Here are some things you should keep in mind if you have a pathological liar in your life:

  • Stay calm: Although it is challenging to not lose your temper, it is important to remain calm when talking to a pathological liar. After all, they may not be doing it on purpose, and it could be the symptom of a much more severe mental illness. Stay as supportive and friendly as you can but also be firm and don’t allow them to run wild with their fantasies.
  • Expect more lies: Should you attempt to call someone out on their lies, they will most likely respond with another lie and become shocked or angry at the accusation. This is a time when it’s best to learn how to pick your battles and call out their lie only if really necessary — the altercation after may end up much worse than the lie was. 
  • Don’t take it personally: No one enjoys being lied to, and it’s hard not to take offense at someone telling you something you know is not true. But remember, this person may be dealing with a lot more issues under the surface, like a personality disorder, anxiety, or low self-esteem.
  • Be supportive: Make sure the person knows that they have no reason to impress you. You already value them and care for who they are and make sure they know how much you care. Most lies are told with the goal to impress or draw sympathy. If the person knows they have your sympathy and attention, they may have less of an impulse to make up stories.
  • Don’t engage: Sometimes, the best thing to do is acknowledge that you are aware they are lying and have no desire to continue the conversation. Try to be as supportive as you can but remind them you know what they are saying is not true and therefore have no desire to continue the conversation. 
  • Suggest help: Bring up the possibility of getting them help without any judgment or shame. Sometimes pathological liars are completely unaware they have a condition. Offering up friendly advice or information on where to get more help could get them started on a journey to better mental health.

The Takeaway

While lies may be a common part of everyday life, pathological lies can be exhausting to handle. We still don’t know what causes someone to constantly lie. but we do know ways to help navigate these falsehoods and still remain supportive

Pathological lying can be a frustrating thing to deal with, and it’s important to remember that it could be indicative of a much larger issue. If you know anyone that suffers from a tendency to pathologically lie, it’s important to try to get them some medical help. Seeing a licensed and qualified therapist can go a long way toward improving their mental health and potentially discovering the root cause of their incessant need for lying. 

Sources

  1. Pseudologia Fantastica in the Emergency Department: A Case Report and Review of the Literature (ncbi.nim.nih.gov))
  2. Pseudologia fantastica: Forensic and clinical treatment implications (sciencedirect.com)
  3. Pathological liars: Everything you need to know (medicalnewstoday.com) 

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