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"Liar Liar, Pants on Fire," The Pathological Liar

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

I’m sure that most of you recognize that childhood refrain. I’m also sure you remember the enchanting story of Pinocchio, whose nose grew longer and longer with each lie he told.

Remember the 1997 Jim Carey movie, Liar Liar? In the movie, Carey plays a lawyer who becomes successful by lying to everyone, even his wife and son. His son, disappointed by the fact that his dad never shows up for important events, makes a wish that his father must tell the truth for one year. The wish comes true and a hysterically funny movie unfolds as Carey blurts out the truth in the most embarrassing situations possible. Of course, there is a moral to the story as, one year later, he has learned his lessons and goes on to become an effective father, husband and lawyer who uses the truth both at work and home. Carely played the role of a pathological liar.

Following is an email question sent in to me by someone who was confused by the fact that he constantly told lies and had no understanding of why.

I am 29 years old and I have recently come to realize that I lie just because I can. I have done some research and I believe myself to be a habitual liar. My question is, what are some things that can help me to not lie anymore? I find myself lying more than I tell the truth and sometimes it is because of attention but other times it just happens before I realize it. Lying should not be this natural and I need help in finding ways to control this problem. Thinking back, I have been doing this almost all my life and not many people ever realized that I was lying to them. Please help me because I do not want my children to pick up this habit from me.

There is a specific type of liar called a pathological liar (PL). That term is not meant to be judgemental or demeaning. There are many types of lies and liars. There are those who are criminal and lie with criminal intent, such as committing fraud or ripping someone off from his money. There are the “little white lies” that are harmless in nature, partially true and done to bolster another person. There are lies of commission and omission. A lie of commission is a deliberate lie intended to mislead. A lie of omission is the withholding of information, perhaps to protect someone or to deceive someone by withholding information. In all of these cases people know they are lying and have a conscious intent or purpose in being untruthful.

However, the pathological liar and the lies he tells are entirely different. There is no purpose to the lies and the pathological liar is sometimes unaware of the fact that he is telling lies. One psychologist suggested that the pathological liar was so uncomfortable with his real life that he constructed a mythological wonderful life for himself. This is called pseudologia phantasica. It’s a fantastic untruth that is so fantastical that it makes no sense. Herein is the essence of the pathological liar. Sooner or later he get caught in his lies. As he weaves more and more lies they become ever more complicated so that ruination and discovery are inevitable.

There remains a lot of mystery about the PL. It does not seem connected to any other psychiatric condition. The PL is not psychotic, depressed or anxious. It has been suggested that there is something compulsive about the behavior but that has not been proven. PLs are often extremely successful people. They come from all professions and businesses so that deprivation is not a motivating factor. When they become aware of a lie they told, they do experience guilt feelings. They are not sociopaths and lose everything as a result of their behavior.

It has been debated that this is an impulse disorder because the lies occur spontaneously and are unplanned. This raises questions about the liar’s ability to control the behavior and, therefore, the extent that he can be held responsible in a court of law. Some judges have ruled that, in the absence of any other psychological condition, the liar is to be held legally responsible. It is also suggested that the lies are so disorganized that people see them as senseless. That is why, if they are forced into court, lawyers do not want to put them on the stand. How can a pathological liar be trusted to tell the truth if his lies are contradictory, self incriminating and perpetual, even in court? Many of these people cannot tell the difference between their lies and reality.

Pathological lying is not really understood by mental health professionals and that is part of the reason why there is no clear treatment that is best for this type of patient. For those who know they have a problem, as in the man who wrote the email above, psychotherapy is best, at least at this point. Of course, part of the problem with talk therapy is that the patient needs to tell the truth. Indeed, this can be a stumbling block to psychotherapy.

Do you know a pathological liar? Are you one? Are you married to one? Is your child showing symptoms?
We welcome your experience with this as well as your comments and questions.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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