How to spot pathological liars — and how to deal with them

Lying is commonplace. Sometimes, it is something people do for personal gains, and some people may to do it to avoid punishment or adverse consequences of an actual event. But then there are people who are unable to control lying, and end up doing it repeatedly for no apparent reason. This behaviour is called pathological lying, which may happen as a result of a personality disorder Pathological lying is unhealthy, as it may affect relationships and professional life.‌ Let us tell you how to spot a pathological liar and ways to deal with them.

What does being a pathological liar mean?

In everyday life, people often use the term pathological liar to describe people who lie excessively, mostly doing so for their own benefit. But from a scientific angle, such people will not be labelled as pathological liars. Pathological lying, also called Pseudologia Fantastica, refers to those people who find it difficult to control lying, and often lie without any obvious reason, purpose or gain, says psychiatrist Dr Rakesh Kumar Chaddha. This behaviour may be seen in people for many years and sometimes, a lifetime.

A pathological liar
Pathological liars may experience impaired funcitoning. Image courtesy: Freepik

As such, pathological lying is not an illness. But it may be described as an abnormal behaviour or trait. It may occur as a symptom in people with personality disorders (histrionic or narcissistic or borderline).

About 13 percent of a 2020 study participants indicated that they either identified themselves as pathological liars or others did. The study published in the Psychiatric Research & Clinical Practice journal also showed that people who identified as pathological liars experienced more distress, and impaired functioning than those who did not consider themselves to be pathological liars.

How to spot a pathological liar?

A pathological liar can be distinguished on the basis of either the content or the process of lying.

  • He or she tells stories about extreme, abnormal, minor or unlikely events that they were involved in, including extensive, unrequested, colourful, fantastical, dramatic narratives or details.
  • The person might get defensive when confronted, may dodge questions or provide vague answers.
  • They have a tendency to contradict themselves.
  • They may appear anxious and distressed while lying.

Why are some people pathological liars?

A pathological liar fantasizes unreal stories and always wants to communicate his or her lies. It provides an internal satisfaction to these people, says the expert. There may be a history of childhood trauma or abuse. The person is able to live with the ambiguous or shameful event experienced in the past by denial, and resorts to building up false stories in the form of pathological lying, which provides him or her some kind of gratification.

Check this out: Take this QUIZ to tell if someone is a pathological liar!

How to deal with a pathological liar?

Pathological liars appear to have little to no regret regarding how their lies affect others. Although pathological liars may be in a relationship with people, it is often difficult for them to maintain an honest and healthy relationship. This can result in toxic relationships that cause stress and hurt to the people around them.

A pathological liar in a toxic relationship
Pathological liars are unable to maintain healthy relationships. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Here are ways to deal with a pathological liar:

1. Limit interaction

Engaging in debates or arguments with a pathological liar can be exhausting and unproductive. Since their lies are often deeply ingrained, attempting to reason with them may only escalate tensions or lead to further manipulation. Limiting interaction can help maintain emotional well-being and prevent unnecessary conflict, says the expert.

2. Stay grounded

Pathological liars excel at distorting reality and blurring the lines between fact and fiction. So, it is crucial to remain anchored in your own sense of truth and not allow yourself to be manipulated by their deceitful narratives or stories.

3. Set boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries is essential for protecting yourself from the emotional toll of interacting with a pathological liar. Communicate your limits firmly and assertively, but understand that they may not respect these boundaries due to their compulsive lying behaviour.

4. Disengage when necessary

Pathological liars often react defensively when confronted with their lies, resorting to manipulation tactics or verbal aggression to deflect accountability. Recognising when conversations become unproductive or hostile and choosing to disengage can prevent further emotional harm or conflict, says Dr Chaddha.

5. Manage expectations

It is crucial to manage your expectations when dealing with a pathological liar. Recognise that their lying behaviour may not change even with intervention or confrontation. Accepting this reality can help you navigate interactions with them more effectively and reduce feelings of frustration or disappointment.

6. Encourage professional help

Suggesting therapy or counselling for the pathological liar can be a compassionate and constructive approach. Reaching out to a professional can help them explore the underlying psychological reasons for their lying behaviour and develop healthier coping mechanisms. However, it’s important to approach this suggestion with sensitivity and respect, as they may be resistant to acknowledging or seeking help for their behaviour.

What are the treatment options?

Early recognition is important to break the pattern of lying. While it may be valuable to conduct a psychiatric diagnostic assessment, it remains challenging to involve these people in psychiatric care. Psychotherapy like cognitive behaviour therapy or dialectical behaviour therapy, counselling, and family support can help. There are no medications for pathological lying.

Pathological lying is a behaviour that may be part of a personality disorder. There are no formal treatments for it, but therapies may help pathological liars.

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