Liar, liar, pants on fire: Am I a pathological liar?

Dear Alice,

I AM A LIAR... I lie to my friends, I lie to my family, I lie to people I don't even know, but most of all, I lie to myself. Sometimes I catch myself telling a story to someone and actually believing myself when I made the whole ordeal up. Do I have a problem? Am I a pathological liar? How can I reverse my lies and come clean without hurting the people I love?

Dear Reader,

Truth be told, research on what’s commonly known as “pathological lying” is fairly limited. However, there does seem to be some differences between this kind of lying and telling the occasional whopper. Most significantly, pathological liars tend to have a lengthy track record of stretching the truth, doing so constantly and impulsively. There is also a mixed track record when it comes to the terminology. While some mental health professionals use pathological liar and compulsive liar interchangeably, others see them as distinct. In these instances, the delineation is that the former will have a clear motive for their chronic lying — usually to seek attention or admiration. However, the latter has no such motive; they can't control their lying nor can they make themselves stop, sometimes even after they’ve been called out or exposed. Whether or not this behavior is problematic depends a lot on how the lying makes you feel, what you lie about, and maybe even why you lie (more on this later). Fessing up may be challenging and could carry the risk of hurting the people you care about — but if it’s something you’d really like to do, it might help to engage in some self-reflection before you own up to the fibbing.

But first, to address the little elephant in the room: while lying is usually frowned upon in good company, it’s actually a pretty common social behavior. Some studies suggest that adults might lie in up to 20 percent of their social interactions! And people lie for all sorts of reasons: sometimes people lie to deceive or manipulate a situation to their advantage or to avoid negative consequences (such as cheating on an exam or a partner). Sometimes people also tell half-truths as a social courtesy, without any hurtful intentions or consequences (such as telling a friend you loved the itchy sweater they got you for your birthday). Lies might also be motivated by a need to maintain relationships or encourage cooperation, to reduce stress or embarrassment, or to compensate for traumatic experiences. All of this to say, Reader, is that most people lie at some point in their life.

So, when do a few tall tales start to qualify as “pathological?” Though clinical and psychological research on the topic is still limited, pathological lying affects between 8 and 13 percent of the population. Mental health professionals tend to distinguish pathological lying from typical fibs because it happens repeatedly, and the person lying might feel like they don’t have much control over it. People who lie pathologically often lie even if it benefits no one, including themselves — they may not even understand why they can’t tell the truth. This condition can also lead impaired functioning and runs the risk of damaging the liar’s reputation. One study found that pathological liars on average tell about ten lies per day, causing them distress as their lies grow more and more and they attempt to justify their behavior.

While frequent lying can be one of the many symptoms associated with other mental disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V-TR) doesn't actually list pathological lying or compulsive lying as a disorder itself. However, the aforementioned study determined that pathological lying does in fact meet the criteria to be considered a psychological disorder. In fact, the study argued that as long as the DSM-V fails to recognize pathological lying as a disorder, research on the topic will remain limited.

There has, however, been some research into whether some individuals could be predisposed to pathological lying. One study tested the prevalence of white matter — a tissue made up of nerve fibers that allow brain cells to rapidly send and receive messages — in the brains of pathological liars compared to antisocial individuals and neurotypical individuals. Those who lie pathologically were found to have an increase in white matter in the prefrontal cortex (along with other parts of the brain). Since this region controls our decision-making, it could be that this increase in white matter may be the cause for some individuals becoming pathological liars, though this is still just a possible explanation.

Though unconventional, even very frequent lying might not be psychologically harmful unless the behavior also causes the person a great deal of distress or significantly interferes with their daily life. You may ask yourself the following questions to get more clarity: Have you considered taking some time to think about how this behavior affects your day-to-day activities? What motivates you to lie? What do you think might happen if you tell the truth? Have there been any times when telling the truth has been particularly painful to you? Do you ever feel guilty or remorseful after lying? Are these feelings strong enough to disrupt your ability to interact with your family and friends, go to classes, or complete your work? You could even consider keeping a journal — the next time you catch yourself bending the truth, try to take notice of the specific situation or any emotions you feel. This kind of reflective exercise might help to reveal some clues or patterns that may get at the roots of your behavior.

As for coming clean, it’s difficult to predict how a confession might affect the people with whom you’ve been less than honest. Before you talk to them, it may be helpful to think about different ways they might react, and how you might feel as a result. Each situation is different — you may decide that some lies aren't worth mentioning (it might be okay if your friend still thinks you like that itchy sweater), while others really need to be set right. Only you can decide if and when it’s time to come clean. Remember that it’s natural to feel anxious about the negative impacts it may have on your relationships with family and friends. At the same time, consider that the damage may not be permanent, if there’s damage at all. Solid relationships can withstand setbacks; it’s possible that your loved ones could find ways to forgive and trust you again. When you’re ready to break the news, try your best to be kind and respectful, and understand that they may want some space to process everything. A sincere apology and patience can go a long way towards mending broken trust.

Finally, you could also consider seeking the help of someone you can trust, such as a clergy member or mental health professional, to talk about what you're going through. You’ve already made a big step in confronting yourself about this behavior, but you don’t have to go it alone! These folks might be able to help you explore some of the difficulties you’ve been having with telling the truth, as well as offer additional support and guidance as you move forward. If you’ve been keeping a journal, bringing this to your meeting may help you start that conversation. If you're interested in more information about accessing mental health resources, check out some additional Q&As in the Relationships and Emotional Health categories in the Go Ask Alice! archives.

Last updated Apr 15, 2022
Originally published Aug 22, 2003

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