While we all tell little white lies occasionally, there's a big difference between someone who fibs every now and again, and someone who is a pathological liar. "A pathological liar is somebody who lies without effort, someone for whom telling a lie comes more naturally than telling the truth," psychologist Dr. Michele Barton, director of Psychology Life Well, tells Bustle. It can become a part of the liar's everyday life, to the point where their whole existence is a fabrication.
As you might have guessed, this level of lying is usually a symptom of a greater problem. While pathological lying can be its own disorder — known as pseudologia fantastica — it can also be a symptom of psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other things.
And, it can have roots in childhood trauma. "Pathological liars are usually very insecure individuals raised by very authoritative and strict parents who were not excepting of that individual as they were, therefore the [person] had to create a persona that was lovable and acceptable by their parents to avoid punishment, embarrassment, and vulnerability," says Barton. "Lying in children and adolescents is very normal, and a common universal part of development and growth. That said, this is something that we are supposed to outgrow as we become responsible upstanding citizens as adults."
Pathological lying can be difficult to treat, but that doesn't mean there isn't hope. Here are some scientific facts about pathological lying, as well as what you can do about it, if you or a friend might be affected.
1Pathological Lying Is Often Connected To A Personality Disorder
"Most pathological liars either have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or at least strong narcissistic traits and they compulsively lie (and know they are lying) just to make themselves look better," psychiatrist Dr. Scott Carroll tells Bustle. And since one of the symptoms characteristic of NPD is "an exaggerated sense of self-importance," it makes sense why that might be.
Experts say NPD can also be more common than we think, which means many people may be experiencing these symptoms. Carroll says recent studies have found that that lifetime rates — meaning someone has met criteria at least one point in their life time — are as high as 7.7 percent for men and 4.8 percent for women.
If you or someone you know seems to be a pathological liar, there's a chance NPD might be playing a role in that. While NPD is difficult to treat — usually because sufferers fail to seek treatment — it's not impossible to do so. Speaking with a therapist can be a great place to start.
2It Might Have Roots In OCD, Too
"Pathological lying can be a function of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but it is not a mental illness on its own," licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Racine Henry, PhD, LMFT tells Bustle. "In fact, it is a learned behavior and a maladaptive coping mechanism."
A learned behavior means that for whatever reason, the OCD sufferer may have learned to lie in order to feel better, to make people like them, to hide their illness, etc. Obviously, not everyone with OCD is a pathological liar, but some pathological liars do have OCD.
3Pathological Liars Have Different Hormone Levels Than Most People
"One of the most interesting theories about pathological liars is that they may have the opposite ratio of cortisol and testosterone than most people," Bill Eddy LCSW, a licensed therapist, tells Bustle. "This allows them to be highly aggressive without concern for the risks involved, such as blatantly lying about something which could have serious consequences if they were caught."
And this might connect them to yet another personality disorder. As Eddy says, "The most successful pathological liars are sociopaths, also known as 'antisocial personality disorder' to mental health professionals."
These different hormone levels may play a part in that. As Eddy says, "For most people, cortisol stops them from being overly aggressive and taking unreasonable risks. But for those with antisocial personality disorder, they may have a higher level of testosterone and a lower level of cortisol than the average person ... This may result in the person lying outrageously, but convincingly." Just to be clear, not all pathological liars are sociopaths, but there is evidence to suggest that most sociopaths are pathological liars.
4They Often Lie About Medical Issues
Since lies are often told as a way to seek sympathy, it makes sense why pathological liars might fib about having poor health. "Some pathological liars exclusively lie about medical symptoms and conditions because they compulsively seek the sympathy of others that being ill provides and/or compulsively seek to be taken care of by others such as be nurses in a hospital," Carroll says. "This is called factitious disorder, and it can lead to healthy people getting surgeries and other medical treatments they don’t need."
5Many Pathological Liars Actually Believe Their Own Lies
Some pathological liars are "functionally delusional," Carroll says, meaning they actually believe their own lies and can even pass a lie detector test.
"This is called being 'micro-psychotic' to distinguish such people from [those] who have schizophrenia and are severely delusional," says Carroll. "Most people who are micro-psychotic have Borderline Personality Disorder and actually believe what they are saying (which helps them be even more convincing), but then if they are caught in the lie, they can re-write their memories to believe a new lie on the spot."
Carroll says that when someone is changing the script in their head, their eyes tend to flutter for a few seconds as their entire memory changes. And they won't even remember the lie they just told. "Such people have usually had childhoods filled with abuse, neglect, and loss of care givers and grew up in foster care or an orphanage." And learning to tell lies was developed as a coping mechanism.
6Children Who Lie Sometimes Have Anxiety Or Depression
As mentioned above, it's typical for children and teenagers to lie, as they go through their different stages of development, and test boundaries. But some children who lie might be doing so due to anxiety or depression.
As Carroll says, "Children can be compulsive liars where they will deny mistakes or violations of rules that they obviously did. Their compulsive lying tends to be associated with anxiety, low grade depression, and low self-esteem, which makes it harder for them to admit their mistakes." Luckily, this is usually treatable, and with good results.
7It's Difficult To Treat Adult Liars
Adults who are pathological liars can be more difficult to treat. "For adults, compulsive lying is hard to stop because it can be extremely reflexive and habitual, Carroll says. "Also, people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder don’t tend to seek treatment for their narcissism — just for their anxiety or depression." So if that's the cause of the lying, it may be tricky.
"[As a therapist] you tend to have to tiptoe around their narcissistic traits when you clinically work with someone and hope that their narcissism improves with their anxiety and depression," he says. Again, NPD is not impossible to treat. But it can be difficult.
8Pathological Liars Lie To Relieve Anxiety
Kids tend to lie to relieve their anxiety. But the same is true for adults, too. "Pathological liars emerge for a number of reasons, but what is certainly common to all is a high level of underlying anxiety and deep-seated fear of rejection," says Barton. "Lying is something people do to protect their fragile psyche, even if they say it was to protect someone else. It’s when they cannot handle the truth or they cannot handle presenting the truth, or the consequences, they can quickly relieve their anxiety with lies if believed."
9But Lying Also Causes Anxiety
The frustrating thing is, liars may lie to relieve their anxiety. But experts say this often leads to more anxiety. As Barton says, "The same lie creates anxiety because now this must be kept up and it also could be uncovered to be not true at any point going forward. This is where things become a little bit more complicated, when sensations of the associated arousal and reinforcement enter the scene."
10Lying Can Be Addictive
Speaking of "associated arousal and reinforcement," lying can actually be addictive, due to what it does to the brain. "It’s behaviors and reward systems are very much like gambling — you never know when it’s a bust or jackpot," Barton says. "As the pathological liar becomes accustomed to that level of fear and anxiety, they almost cannot function without it."
The same is true for many unhealthy coping mechanisms. But there is hope. If you or someone you know lies compulsively, or has other unhealthy habits as a way of dealing with stress or depression, there are ways to adjust how you think, and handle your anxiety in a better way. Speaking with a loved one or a therapist is a good place to start.
11If You Just Met A Pathological Liar, They've Already Lied To You
Many pathological liars won't show you their true personality, or let you get to know them, because that would make lying (and getting away with it) more difficult. And because of that, "a pathological liar will most likely lie to you the first time you meet them, to set the stage for more lying," Barton says. "This is their baseline — you know them to be this way, therefore many are more trusting and allowing of inconsistencies amongst information delivered by a pathological liar because they have skillfully dressed it up in an appealing fashion, which has been openly accepted by those who buy into the lie(s)."
They do, however, pepper in a few truths. As Barton says, "Pathological liars frequently will use a nugget of truth or fact to build the structure of their house of cards around, this also makes lies more palatable and accepted since part of it is true."
With all of that said, it's fine to tell minor lies every now and again. But pathological lying can get out of control, and even lead to problems with the law, with work, and relationships. While it may be difficult to treat — especially if it's due to a personality disorder — it's always worth a try. Speaking with a therapist can mean learning healthier coping skills, and treating any underlying conditions that might be the cause of pathological lying.