How to Understand and Cope with Compulsive Liars

I don't want to share a connection with him right now

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We all tell lies occasionally. The average person tells two lies a day. However, some people tell several lies a day as a way of coping with various social situations.

Compulsive liars are people who have very little control over their tendency to use lying as a coping skill, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.” “They may lie to manage social situations or meet their own psychological needs of safety, security, or belonging.”

For instance, a compulsive liar may tell a quick lie to avoid discomfort or make up something to make them seem more desirable, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, and professor at Yeshiva University. “There are usually themes in their lies, such as: they are heroic, they have a lot of accomplishments, or they are deserving of sympathy.”

We asked the experts how to deal with compulsive liars and they recommended encouraging the person to get professional help, while also setting boundaries in your relationship with them to protect yourself.

This article explores the signs and causes of compulsive lying and suggests some strategies to help you deal with someone in your life who is a compulsive liar.

Signs of a Compulsive Liar

These are some of the signs that someone is lying, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Telling stories with extensive details to make them seem more real
  • Appearing anxious while speaking
  • Frequently changing their story
  • Saying one thing but doing another
  • Being vague when questioned
  • Becoming defensive when confronted with inconsistencies in their story

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell when someone is lying and you just have to wait and see whether their words are proven to be untrue, says Dr. Daramus. “If you know them well, you may recognize a tone of voice or body posture that tells you they're lying, but many times you just have to wait it out.”

Causes of Compulsive Lying

Some people lie compulsively out of habit, whereas others do it due to a mental health disorder.

Mental Health Conditions and Compulsive Lying

According to Dr. Daramus, people who lie compulsively may do so because they have a mental health condition such as:

However, it’s important to note that everyone who lies compulsively doesn’t necessarily have a mental health condition and everyone who has these mental health conditions isn’t necessarily a compulsive liar.

Lying as a Coping Skill

Many people who lie compulsively use it as a coping skill, because it protected them or solved a problem, perhaps when they were very young, says Dr. Daramus. “So, if someone is a compulsive liar, they’ve probably had to handle some tough situations where lying helped them cope or kept them safe.”

A 2016 study notes that the brain gets accustomed to dishonesty. The researchers studied participants’ brains to see what happens when they lie and found that the more someone lies, the easier it becomes for them to tell bigger, more frequent lies.

What Is a Pathological Liar vs. Compulsive Liar?

Lying pathologically is not quite the same as lying compulsively. Below, Dr. Romanoff explains the difference between pathological liars and compulsive liars:

  • Compulsive lying: Compulsive liars often lie out of habit, because it comes easily to them. They often lie in low-stakes situations where there is little to gain, beyond basic social impression management. These lies cause little immediate harm but erode trust over time. 
  • Pathological lying: Pathological liars are often motivated to lie for personal gain, to harm others, or to the detriment of those they deceive.

How to Deal With a Compulsive Liar

The experts shared some strategies that can help you deal with compulsive liars.

Don’t Take It Personally

When you realize someone is lying to you, you may find yourself wondering what you did wrong or whether your behavior has anything to do with it.

However, it’s important to avoid taking the person’s lies personally and remember that their compulsion to lie reflects more on them than it does on you, says Dr. Romanoff. 

Explain How Their Lies Are Affecting You

If you do catch the person in a lie, try not to get frustrated and get into a back and forth of pulling for the truth, says Dr. Romanoff.

Instead, talk to them and let them know how their lies are affecting you. For example, you could say:

  • “I was angry and upset when I found out you lied to me.”
  • “If you lie to me, it’s difficult for me to rely on you to get this done.”
  • “It’s hard for me to trust that you’re telling me the truth now.”

Encourage Them to Get Help

Encourage the person to see a mental healthcare provider who can help them understand why they’re lying, diagnose whether they have an underlying mental disorder, and help them develop healthier coping mechanisms.

You can make your connection with them contingent on their getting therapy with a trained professional, says Dr. Daramus.

Set Boundaries With Them

Dr. Daramus recommends setting boundaries with the person to protect yourself. 

Depending on your relationship with the person, you could say:

  • “I don’t want our relationship to be based on lies. I can only be your friend/partner if you tell me the truth.”
  • “I will have to terminate your employment if I find out you’ve lied to me again.”

Although, if the person’s compulsion to lie is strong, the boundary may not be effective and you may find that they're continuing to lie to you, despite the threat that you’ll walk away from the relationship, says Dr. Daramus.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

There may come a point when you need to think through your boundaries and end your relationship with them.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD
2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Curtis DA, Hart CL. Pathological lying: theoretical and empirical support for a diagnostic entity. Psychiatr Res Clin Pract. 2020;2(2):62-69. doi:10.1176/appi.prcp.20190046

  2. Garrett N, Lazzaro SC, Ariely D, Sharot T. The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nat Neurosci. 2016;19(12):1727-1732. doi:10.1038/nn.4426

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.