​​Coping With Someone Who Lies Pathologically

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Have you ever had the feeling when you’re talking to someone that they’re not quite telling the truth? Or, that what they’re saying isn’t matching up to the facts? Over time, have you caught them in multiple lies, some small and some not so small? You may have found yourself wondering why they’re lying to you so often.

While most people tell the occasional fib, some people lie more frequently and even unconsciously, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

Pathological Liar

A pathological liar is someone who has no control over their lying, according to Daramus.

This article, with inputs from a psychologist, explores pathological lying and shares some tips that can help you cope with a person in your life who lies pathologically.

Press Play for Advice On Lying

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring psychologist Paul Ekman aka "the human lie detector" shares why people lie and how to tell if someone is lying. Click below to listen now.

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Pathological Lying vs. Other Types of Lying

Most people would be lying if they said they’ve never told a lie. But, at what point does it become pathological lying? Daramus explains the difference between telling the occasional lie, lying compulsively, and lying pathologically.

Lying Occasionally

Everyone lies occasionally, but it's a conscious decision. 

It might be out of kindness (“Yes, the bowl haircut looks adorable!”), to get out of trouble (“The cat must have knocked over that glass vase”), or to finesse a social situation (“I'm having a great time, but I have to be up early tomorrow. Bye!”).

However, most people have other coping skills, apart from lying.

Lying Compulsively

It’s important to note that compulsive lying is not the same as pathological lying. A person who lies compulsively simply lies without thought or control and doesn't have any specific intent. Compulsive lying is often purely out of habit.

Lying Pathologically

People who lie pathologically often tell lies about things that don’t matter, for no apparent reason. 

They may do it unconsciously and may not even realize they're lying in the moment, although they can often tell afterward. Moreover, they may not care, as long as it serves their purpose.

Like people who lie compulsively, people who lie pathologically sometimes lie without specific intent, but they may also lie for a purpose. It's still pathological because it hurts or manipulates people, and there are healthier ways to achieve the same goal. For example, a person who lies pathologically may lie to establish status; however, there are other ways to do that. 

According to a 2016 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, lying is a self-perpetuating cycle. The researchers examined the brains of the participants to determine what happens when someone tells a lie. They found that the more a person lies, the easier it becomes for them to tell a lie, which in turn makes them more likely to lie. 

Mental Health Impact 

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

You'll feel confused around a person who lies pathologically, because you don't know what to believe.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Daramus notes that if you're dealing with some who lies all the time, you'll always be in a state of uncertainty. Being uncertain can become exhausting and stressful because you'll constantly be checking if their words match their actions.

Being lied to can feel a lot like gaslighting, says Daramus, except that someone who's gaslighting you has a strategy, while the actions of a person who lies pathologically might sometimes have a purpose and sometimes be more random. 

Dealing with someone who is lying to you can also make you feel frustrated, angry, or hurt. It can be difficult to trust them and build a relationship with them.

Coping Strategies

Here are some strategies that can help you cope with a person in your life who lies pathologically:

  • Know that it’s not personal: While it can certainly be hard not to take it personally, it’s important to remember that a person who lies pathologically may not necessarily be aware of it or intend to do it. They may even have underlying mental health conditions that are motivating their behavior.
  • Suggest treatment: Suggest that the person seek mental health treatment for their condition and offer whatever resources and support that you can. Avoid being judgmental; instead, let them know that you’re concerned about them.
  • Expect resistance: When you confront the person about their lies, they may deny it or respond with more lies. Avoid losing your temper. If you’re upset, let them know that you don’t want to interact with them if they’re not being honest with you. 
  • Pay attention to their actions: As it can be difficult to trust the words of a person who lies pathologically, “one of the most effective things you can do is read the person’s actions. Actions don't lie, and over time you'll spot patterns that will help you predict their future behavior,” says Daramus.
  • Set boundaries: “It's important to set boundaries in your relationship with the person, to protect yourself. If they don’t have a lot of insight or willingness to change, you might have to set boundaries with yourself about how much you'll give to that relationship,” says Daramus.
  • End the relationship: If you are unable to cope with the person’s lies, you can end your relationship with them. “However, this may not always be easy to do, if the person is a family member or coworker, for instance,” says Daramus.

A Word From Verywell

If you know someone who is constantly lying to you, mental health treatment may be beneficial to them, as it can help them change their habits and treat any other underlying conditions they have. 

In the meantime, it can be helpful to you to set boundaries in your relationship with them, to protect your mental health. 

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