6 Subtle Characteristics of The Pathological Liar
Pathological lying (PL) has been defined by the Psychiatric Times as a “long history (maybe lifelong history) of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned.” There is no real consensus on what pathological lying is and many people have developed their own definition. Pathological lying is something that has negatively affected many people, even professionals, who are often unaware of the psychiatric instability or personality disorder of the liar. For example, in one of my previous articles I focused on Judge Patrick Couwenberg, a Superior Court Judge of California, who lied repeatedly while serving the public. The former Judge maintained the lie that he was a Caltech graduate, a wounded war veteran, and a CIA operative in the 1960s. All of these statements were easily identified by his peers as unreliable and inconsistent, but Couwenberg continued to attempt to evade others. He was later removed for “willful and prejudicial misconduct” for lying about attending Caltech. This education was critical to his Judicial position.
Multiple research studies have attempted to find an answer to this question to no avail. Trying to understand the mind, behaviors, and intention of the pathological liar is not an exact science. It is very much an inexact science and entails years of study. Humans are complex and trying to understand the reasons for why they do all the things they do takes more than a graduate school degree in psychology and years of work experience. For many mental health professionals and psychiatrists, trying to understand the pathological liar (or sociopath and narcissist who engages in this behavior) will entail a combination of intuition and science. Science alone cannot answer the many questions we have about pathological liars, but experience can offer some clues. We now know that pathological lying is spontaneous and unplanned. Impulsivity is often the culprit. We also know that pathological lying is more likely to occur in certain disorders or among individuals who have certain personality traits. Some diagnoses that might include pathological lying includes but is not limited to:
- Personality Disorders:
- Antisocial Personality Disorder (better known as sociopathy)
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Narcissism or narcissistic personality disorder
- Behavioral disorders:
- Conduct disorder (often diagnosed in children and teens who have criminal-like behaviors or who demonstrate sociopathic traits such as animal cruelty, fire setting, and oppositional behaviors toward authority)
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and CD (conduct disorder)
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often combined with ODD or CD
Certain personality traits where pathological lying may occur include:
- Narcissism or self-centered behaviors and thought patterns
- Abusive attitude
- Obsessive, controlling, and compulsive behaviors
- Jealous behavior
- Manipulative behaviors
- Socially awkward, uncomfortable, or isolated
- Low self-esteem
It is important to keep in mind that there are pathological liars who quite frankly just cannot help telling so many lies. It is almost like an automatic thing for the liar. Their world is much different from our world. But there are also liars who are gratified by telling lies, are good at it, and do not regret anything they have ever said. These individuals are “skillful” liars who attempt to evade and harm everyone they come across in their lives. In fact, these liars would meet diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder (or sociopathy). They also tell truths in ways that give incorrect perspectives. In other words, they tell the truth in a misleading way to cause people to view things in an incorrect fashion. Such individuals enjoy and get much gratification from keeping you confused and believing their stories. It is the experience of watching a “victim” run through the maze of confusion that gives gratification to most liars.
Based on my clinical experience and general research of the profession, I encourage you to keep 6 things in mind as you deal with the pathological liar:
- Know that a pathological liar will study you: The goal of the liar may be hidden, but you can count on the fact that the they don’t want you to know the truth. In order to evade someone, you certainly need to study the person and examine what that person might or might not believe. Liars, often sociopaths, are known to “study” the person they hope to take advantage of. In other words, they look for weaknesses.
- Don’t forget that the liar lacks empathy: As hard as it is to believe, it is true. The liar does not have any moral consciousness of how the lying behavior may make you feel. The liar does not think before he lies: “oh, I better not say that or I could hurt that person or mislead them.” The liar does not care anything about your feelings and never will. A question many parents of my former clients have asked their child who lies is: “Why don’t you just tell me the truth? Why is that so hard!?” As difficult as it is to believe, it is not that easy for the liar to divulge the truth. The liar lacks the ability to consider what you might feel in response to their lie (which is empathy).
- Normal people feel guilty and are relieved when you change the topic or stop asking questions: This was an interesting point that I learned about as I studied forensic psychology as a graduate student some years ago. While working with juvenile delinquents, I found that the pathological liar shows no emotion when lying which makes them believable. A person who is lying and has normal levels of empathy and concern for others, will often show relief when the topic being discussed is changed. For example, if someone told you that they grew up in a concentration camp and experienced a lot of trauma as a result, you would ask questions about it to further understand. If you changed the topic at the point when you observed stress or anxiety in response to your questions, you would see the person relax because they are aware of the consequences of their lying. Most of us will relax when others cease from asking too many questions about a topic we are lying about. A pathological liar is not fazed. You will rarely if ever see emotion.
- All liars do not do the common things you think liars do: Believe it or not, liars do not always touch their nose, shift in their seats or from one foot to the next, or even look sneaky when lying. Some really experienced liars are good at giving you direct eye contact, seeming relaxed or “laid back,” and may appear very sociable. The thing to look for is eye contact that feels piercing. Some sociopaths have learned how to evade people with direct eye contact, sociable smiles, and humor. Trust your instincts and discernment. What do their eyes tell you? What does their behavior or laughter tell you?
- The most sneaky liars are manipulative: I once heard someone say “we all manipulate.” While this might be true to a certain degree, the liar tends to manipulate more than anyone else and has learned how to become a “pro” at doing it. There is nothing impressive about the dangerous or evil manipulator. They know everything to say and do, they know what you want and don’t want, and again, they will “study” you. In fact, many pathological liars (and sociopaths) use sexual or emotional arousal to distract you from the truth. Proceed with caution when dealing with someone who seems to be directing their attention to you in such a way as to stimulate your arousal to distract you. That arousal could be psychological (peaking your interest), emotional (causing you to feel connected to them), or sexual.
- Pathological liars exhibit strange behaviors: Can you remember how you felt, perhaps as a child or teen, after you were caught lying to a teacher, a parent, or friend? Did you feel guilty, sad, or afraid that the other person would no longer accept you? Some research suggests that pathological liars show no discomfort when caught lying, while other studies suggest that liars may become aggressive and angry when caught. The bottom line is that no pathological liar is the same.
I wish you well
About Támara Hill, MS, LPC