How To Tell If Someone Is A Compulsive Liar: 10 Signs To Look For

Updated August 03, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

We all tell lies – you would be lying if you said you didn’t! In fact, Robert S. Feldman, a psychologist and researcher from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, concluded that 60% of us would tell at least one lie while engaged in a 10-minute conversation. You might say that is not so bad. After all, most of the lies we tell would probably come under the heading of ‘Harmless Fibbing’ or ‘white lies.’ Plus, we tend to feel it is OK to tell little lies sometimes, like when we do not want to hurt a person’s feelings or when lying could keep someone out of harm’s way.

Those scenarios are completely different; however, from what happens in compulsive lying. The compulsive liar seems to lie to everyone about everything, and being around them can be both a pain and a strain. It can also be dangerous, depending on the extent of the lies they are telling, and if you mistakenly believe and act on them. It is, therefore, important for you to be able to spot a compulsive liar and for you to know how to deal with a friend or family member who lies compulsively.

We’ll share that information with you, along with explaining exactly what compulsive lying is, as well as causes and treatments for this behavior. Another term for compulsive lying is pathological lying.

What Is Pathological Lying?

Compulsive Lying Is More Common Than You Think - Learn The Signs
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Pathological lying is also known as mythomania and pseudologia fantastica (sometimes spelled pseudologia phantastica), a term coined in 1891 by German physician Anton Delbrück. He is noted for being the first to describe pathological lying as a medical issue. It is an uncontrollable tendency to tell grossly exaggerated lies even when it is obvious you are lying and when there seems to be no reason to lie. It may even be that by telling a lie, the compulsive liar is doing something detrimental to themselves, such as jeopardizing their job or their relationships with loved ones.

In discussing pathological lying, a 2008 article by Dr. Charles Dike in the Psychiatric Times expands on the definition by saying: it is characterized by a long history (maybe lifelong) of frequent and repeated lying.

Other common characteristics exhibited in pathological lying include:

  • Telling lies that carry some element of truth wrapped up in fanciful embellishments. Compulsive liars may, for instance, lie about having to change offices at work because they were promoted to a more senior position. In reality, however, they were asked to move temporarily while the room is being refurbished.
  • The lies begin small but balloon over time. Often, the lies become more elaborate when there is the threat of discovery – the compulsive liar creates an even more intricate tale to cover up or explain away any inconsistencies in the first lie.
  • The lies normally are not externally motivated. Even where an external motive can be identified, it is usually quite insignificant when compared to the complexity of the lie told. Instead, pathological lying seems to satisfy some unconscious need of the liar. This includes lies that are intended to gain the compulsive liar’s sympathy or attention. They may, for instance, lie about the death of a loved one or about being terminally ill.
  • The lies they tell often paint them in a favorable and enviable light. For example, the compulsive liar may pretend to have traveled widely, be wealthy, or connect to rich and famous people.

In trying to pinpoint characteristics of the compulsive liar, a 1988 review of 26 reports, which contained a total of 72 cases of pathological lying, highlighted the following:

  • Both males and females were equally represented among the group.
  • 40% of the subjects were found to have some impairment to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
  • Intelligence Quotients (IQs) of subjects in the studies were either average or just below average.
  • Their verbal IQ was higher than their performance IQ
  • Although 16 was the average age at which subjects developed the condition, it was not identified until about 22.
  • The compulsive liar is not psychotic. In other words, they are not delusional and are, therefore, able to recognize that their stories are deceptive.

What Causes is Pathological Lying?

The underlying cause of pathological lying remains unknown, perhaps due to a lack of sufficient research. However, it has been suggested that the condition may be linked to and developed to deal with trauma experienced in childhood. Some studies also indicate that irregularities of the brain and spinal cord might trigger pathological lying.

It has also been suggested that pathological lying is a learned behavior. People get into the habit of lying because they were never really taught that lying is bad and unacceptable by parents and other authority figures. Also, people with a history of addiction tend to lie to cover up and maintain their addiction through pathological lying.

Can Pathological Lying Be Treated?

Psychologists and psychiatrists are trained to identify pathological lying, and it is always beneficial to the compulsive liar to seek treatment for their condition.

Before pathological lying can be treated, however, it first must be diagnosed. Psychologists and psychiatrists refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) when making diagnoses of any mental disorders. Pathological lying is not currently listed in the DSM-5 as a stand-alone mental disorder. However, it is mentioned as a symptom of several other recognized disorders, including factitious disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

So, while there is no formal treatment for pathological lying, there are options available to reduce this behavior. The diagnostic process may uncover a mental disorder, such as those mentioned above, which the client was unaware that they had. If this is the case, the therapist will work with the client in developing a treatment plan which addresses all of their symptoms.

The most common treatment for pathological lying is psychotherapy (or talk therapy), aimed at helping the client understand the condition they are suffering from and its negative effects on all aspects of their life. In cases where pathological lying is diagnosed as a symptom of another disorder, a medication approved for that disorder may be prescribed. Medication is not normally used; however, as a direct treatment for pathological lying behavior.

A therapist’s training and experience help them be particularly good at figuring out when someone is lying. However, the very nature of pathological lying means it may be necessary for the therapist to verify information with loved ones. This will ensure time and effort are not spent trying to differentiate the compulsive liar’s truths from embellishments.

As with most other conditions, the compulsive liar must recognize that they have a problem and want help resolving it. The client is more likely to be cooperative and receptive to treatment if they attend the therapy sessions willingly instead of coerced.

Apart from treating the compulsive liar, a therapist may suggest that persons close to them and who have to deal with their condition regularly seek therapy. They will get the chance to open up about the effect their loved one’s pathological lying behavior is having on them, as well as learn coping strategies and construction techniques for responding to the liar’s behavior.

10 Signs Someone Is A Compulsive Liar

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1. They Have Unusual Body Language For A Liar

This may be a bit tricky since the compulsive liar usually does not behave in the way we normally expect a liar to behave. For instance, we tend to associate a shifting gaze or the inability to look someone in the eye with lying. The compulsive liar, however, will typically keep looking straight at you while lying. Furthermore, once you are aware that someone is a compulsive liar, you may be surprised to realize how relaxed they are when they lie – because it is so natural to them. This is in contrast to the notion we normally have that a liar is fidgety and nervous.

2. They Have Complicated Lives

Quite often, the lies the compulsive liar tells have already led to broken relationships and lost jobs. If the person has been married multiple times, seems to be always in and out of romantic relationships, and is constantly changing friends or jobs, it may be a sign that they are compulsive liars.

3. They Retell Things Told To Them In Confidence

It is hard for the compulsive liar to keep a secret. Plus, they are likely to embellish the story as they pass it on to others. You may notice, therefore, that they tend to enjoy getting and sharing gossip.

4. The “Steal” Other People’s Stories

It is not uncommon for the compulsive liar to take another person’s story and turn it into their own. Their tendency to do this increases if the story is likely to gain attention or sympathy. They may even be quite blatant about it. For instance, upon hearing a co-worker say their house was broken into, the compulsive liar might come to you with an extravagant tale of how they were recently the victim of a break-in.

5. They Are Quick Thinkers

Compulsive liars get into the habit of lying to cover up inconsistencies in past lies – and they get very good at it. They seem to be able to make up an explanation without any effort or stalling. Furthermore, they become quite skilled at telling different lies (or different versions of the same lie) to different people.

6. They Are Defensive

If you point out discrepancies in their story or frankly say that you think they are lying, the compulsive liar will tend to become defensive. This may include pointing the finger at someone else as the reason they had to lie. Anger is another common reaction a compulsive liar will give when confronted with the truth. They may angrily accuse you of not being their friend if you don’t believe them or insist they know the “facts” better than you do.

7. They Seem To Lack Empathy

Many compulsive liars seem to have no regard for how their lies affect others. They will keep on spinning the lie even if they make someone else uncomfortable or hurt in the process. This lack of empathy may stem from the fact that the compulsive liar is focused solely on satisfying their internal motive to lie.

8. They Staunchly Deny The Evidence

Showing the compulsive liar irrefutable facts in an attempt to get them to come clean does not always work. They may say you are mistaken, or you are mixing up events, and their version did happen. In the end, the compulsive liar will likely just come up with another lie to make their original one seem more plausible.

9. They Avoid Questions

Questions threaten the illusion the compulsive liar is trying to create with their lies. If you ask the compulsive liar questions to clarify their story, they most likely won’t answer directly or become defensive about you doubting them. What’s more, if you press them for a straight answer, the compulsive liar will probably make up another lie in reply.

10. They Have Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem often leads the compulsive liar to tell boastful lies about their accomplishments, connections, or abilities. These lies are told not just to deceive the listener but also to make the compulsive liar feel better about themselves and about fitting in.

Should You Still Be Friends With A Compulsive Liar?

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There is no doubt that it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting having to deal with someone who is a compulsive liar.

You can offer support by pointing out that you are aware of their lies. This might lead them to self-awareness so they can take the first steps toward getting help. You can also show support by urging (but not pushing) them to find the help they need. Have a list of resources on hand, such as https://www.regain.us/start/, to share with them if they indicate they are ready to begin addressing their problem.

However, if they refuse to admit they have a problem and refuse to seek therapy, you will have to decide whether you can continue the relationship. In fact, putting an end to the relationship may be the best thing for your mental health.

If you decide to remain their friend, then here are a few tips on how to proceed:

  • Remember that they are not lying ALL the time. Learn to distinguish their truths from their lies so you can support them when they are honest. If you are positive around them when they tell the truth, it might just encourage them to do it more often.
  • Set boundaries as to what is acceptable and what isn’t. You might, for instance, say it is off-limits to include you as a part of the tales they tell. You should also make it clear you are not going to corroborate any of their stories.
  • Avoid being an enabler to their lying. Maintain your stance of disapproval for their lying tendencies. Do not laugh it off or begin to offer excuses to others why the compulsive liar is the way they are.
  • Keep encouraging them to get help. The bottom line is that the compulsive liar is unlikely to kick the habit all on their own – they need professional help to do so.

There is no consensus among mental health professionals about whether pathological lying is a symptom of various mental disorders or is a disease all on its own. That, however, does not stop persons from being affected by the condition and having to deal with the consequences of it.

If you are struggling with being a compulsive liar or if you have a loved one who you feel needs help for their pathological lying habit, do not hesitate to reach out to a therapist for help right now.

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