Learn / Overcoming Lying Addiction: A Guide to Honesty

Overcoming Lying Addiction: A Guide to Honesty

Kayla Gill
 April 29th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

It’s not uncommon for people to tell an occasional white lie. But for some people, it becomes a way of life. 

Most people tell between zero to 2 lies per day. But people who lie compulsively may tell 5 to 20. What drives this addiction to spinning untruths, and what can be done to stop it? 

We look at the causes of lying addiction, how it affects relationships, and strategies for lasting change.

Understanding Lying Addiction

None of us like to think we lie. But the truth is, everyone tells relatively harmless fibs here and there. Pathological lying, however, takes lying to the next level. 

Some behavioral health professionals advocate for classifying pathological lying as a mental health disorder.1 But it’s difficult to define by itself, as it’s a common trait of so many other mental health disorders. 

Pathological lying isn’t considered a mental health disorder,”2 says psychiatrist Dr. Tracey Marks. “It’s a behavioral disturbance that’s often a part of certain disorders, like antisocial personality disorder or brain damage from alcohol.” 

Unlike telling your friend they look great in a questionable outfit, pathological lying is compulsive, and the lies don’t have a clear motive or benefit. It’s lying for the sake of lying.  

So what causes someone to become a habitual liar? 

The Psychology Behind Compulsive Lying

Some people lie out of a need for approval or fear of rejection. They might try to create a more attractive image of themselves to compensate for low self-esteem. In this case, lying might give them a temporary boost or shield them from feeling inadequate.

Some people struggle with impulse control, which can cause them to lie without considering the consequences. Impulse control disorders3 may coexist with other mental health conditions.

If you fear the consequences of your actions, you might lie to avoid being punished or criticized, or feeling ashamed. 

On the other hand, if feel neglected or overlooked, you may resort to lying to gain attention and validation. This can be a way to ensure that others show an interest in you. 

According to licensed therapist Kati Morton, compulsive lying doesn’t need to have an external motivation.4 Some people simply “don’t think their life is interesting enough.” 

Eventually, lying can become a habitual response to a range of situations. And once it becomes ingrained, it’s hard to stop even if you see the damage it’s doing to your life.

Underlying Mental Health Disorders 

Excessive lying is a symptom of several different mental health diagnoses, and is especially common among cluster B personality disorders:

For some people living with these diagnoses, lying is a core trait of the disorder.5 One example of this is borderline personality disorder, or BPD. According to psychiatrists:  

“These patients often lack a consistent self-identity and hold contradictory views of themselves…Such distortions of reality complicated by a lack of impulse control and the defense mechanisms of primitive denial, idealization, and devaluation are fertile grounds for pathological lying.”

Pathological lying is also a core trait of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Lee Hammock, who identifies as a self-aware, diagnosed narcissist, explains how someone with NPD benefits from lying:6 

“One reason why narcissists lie all the time is for control. Yes, you can easily lose control by lying so much. But lying in the moment means you get to control the narrative; you get to control the situation, which sometimes means you get to control the outcome…Another reason narcissists lie so much is because it’s fun. It is fun to manipulate a situation with lies and watch how things work out.”

Some people may lie as a coping strategy to survive symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Compulsive lying is also sometimes associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). If you’re lying to compensate for obsessive thinking, treating underlying OCD could also address the lying.  

You could also be more likely to struggle with excessive lying if you grew up in a chaotic environment, or if one of your parents had an unresolved mental health issue. 

Explore Personality Disorders Treatment Centers

The Impact of Lying on Relationships and Self

Lying can have deep, detrimental effects on both your relationships and your sense of self. 

How Lying Affects Relationships 

  • It erodes trust. Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. Lying, on the other hand, breeds doubts and suspicions that erode its foundation.
  • It compromises communication: Honest and open communication is crucial to relationships. When lies are present, they challenge your ability to maintain genuine connection and understanding.
  • Lying creates emotional distance: Deceived partners tend to withdraw emotionally to protect themselves from further hurt.
  • It damages intimacy: Intimacy is built on trust and vulnerability. Lying damages the bond between partners, making them hesitant to share their true feelings.
  • It breeds resentment: Discovering lies creates conflict and, over time, leads to resentment. It may become increasingly challenging to resolve issues as the foundation of trust is compromised.

If left unchecked, excessive lying can ultimately cause relationships to break down. Once trust is shattered, rebuilding it is a challenging and lengthy process.

Professional Consequences of Lying

Trust is also a critical component of professional relationships. Once it’s compromised, colleagues, superiors, and clients may question your credibility.

  • Negative impact on leadership: If you’re in a leadership role, lying can undermine your ability to lead effectively. People lose confidence in leaders who aren’t perceived as truthful and transparent.
  • Impaired team dynamics: Lying can disrupt the cohesion and collaboration within your team. Team members may be hesitant to work with someone who has a history of dishonesty.
  • Reduced productivity: Lack of transparency can hinder your team’s ability to do their work efficiently and effectively.
  • Missed opportunities: Lying can result in missed opportunities for projects, promotions, or collaborations. Employers may be hesitant to entrust significant responsibilities to someone with a history of dishonesty. 

Depending on their nature, lies in the workplace can result in disciplinary or even legal action. 

Career growth is tied to trustworthiness and integrity. People who lie may find their professional development stunted, as employers seek to invest in people they can trust.

How Lying Affects Your Relationship With Yourself

Your relationship with yourself is the longest and most important relationship you have. It’s also the one that suffers the worst consequences of lying: 

  • Guilt and shame: These emotions can weigh heavily on your self-worth and damage your self-image.
  • Isolation: Fear of being discovered can cause you to withdraw from social situations. The resulting loneliness further damages your self-esteem.
  • Loss of self-respect: Continuously lying can cause you to lose respect for yourself. Knowing that your actions are dishonest creates internal conflict.
  • Self-deception: People who lie habitually may convince themselves that their lies are justified or necessary. This can lead to a distorted sense of self and a lack of authentic identity.

Ultimately, lying leads to a worse quality of life. Maintaining the web of lies requires effort and constant vigilance to avoid exposure. And that ongoing stress and anxiety take a toll on your well-being. 

Signs You Might Be Addicted to Lying

What are the signs that you or someone you know might be caught in a loop of lying?

1. Frequent Lying for No Apparent Reason

Unlike the occasional lies told by most people, pathological lying is a chronic behavior. It’s not limited to specific situations or circumstances. Rather, it becomes a pervasive and regular pattern.

According to psychiatric research on pathological lying,7 “functional elements of the phenomenon are: the repeated utterance of untruths; the lies are often repeated over a period of years, with the lies eventually becoming a lifestyle.”

Sometimes, lying becomes so habitual that people don’t even notice they’re doing it. To them, it seems like normal conversation or casual storytelling. 

It’s important to note that compulsive lies are not delusions. That is, people telling them don’t believe they’re true. Sometimes, though, if someone tells a lie repeatedly over a long enough time, they start to believe themselves.

2. Attention-Seeking

Constantly seeking validation, pathological liars may fabricate stories to make themselves appear more interesting, accomplished, or victimized than they really are.

Dr. Christian Hart of Texas Woman’s University says a main hallmark of compulsive lying is that the lies are aimed at getting attention:8

“One of the patterns that we tend to see perhaps more than you would see in your typical everyday form of liar is lies that are aimed at bringing attention on oneself. That’s the biggest distinction that we see.” 

3. Impulsivity

The lies told by pathological liars are often impulsive and not well-planned. They may create stories on the spot without considering the consequences.

For some people, like those with Cluster B personality disorders, lying may be an intentional and key part of their goals of manipulation. But for others, it’s purely impulsive. One study on pathological lying finds that “Material reward or social advantage does not appear to be the primary motivating force but the lying is an end in itself; an inner dynamic rather than an external reason drives the lies, the lies are often woven into complex narratives.”9

Someone’s reasons for lying, and how they feel about lying, may vary if their compulsive lying is tied to an underlying mental health condition.

Whatever the cause of your lying is, self-awareness is the first step to change.

Strategies to Overcome Lying Addiction

Once you start to believe your own lies, it gets harder to know what the truth is—and harder to be in an honest relationship with yourself. Some people get so lost in the lies they can’t dig their way out. 

Before that happens, you can develop strategies to address what’s driving this behavior, and start to flex your honesty muscles. 

Acknowledging the Problem

Admitting to yourself that lying is a problem is a foundational step toward recovery. This shows your commitment to change and willingness to address the issues that cause your compulsive behavior. 

The act of acknowledgment can be empowering in and of itself. After all, it marks the beginning of a journey in which you actively participate in shaping a more accurate and authentic narrative.

Seeking Professional Help

Professional support can be hugely beneficial when changing deeply ingrained patterns like compulsive lying. A qualified therapist or counselor can help you work through underlying problems and implement strategies for behavioral change. They can help you develop healthy communication skills so you can express yourself authentically and build relationships based on mutual trust. And, they can identify and create a treatment plan for any co-occurring disorders.

Group therapy and support groups are non-judgmental spaces where you can open up about your struggles with lying. This safe environment encourages honest self-reflection and discussion about sensitive issues.

Building Honesty Skills

Building honesty skills is a gradual process that involves self-reflection, awareness, and the development of new habits, and is most effective with professional guidance. Your therapist might use these strategies to help you adopt more honest behaviors:

  • Pausing before responding: Learning mindfulness practices can help you create mental space to pause in conversation before responding impulsively with a lie.
  • Reflecting on the consequences of lying: Before lying, consciously consider the potential outcomes of being dishonest. Understanding the repercussions might be a deterrent.
  • Practice transparency: Practice open communication with people you trust. Share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences honestly, fostering a habit of openness. Surrounding yourself with friends who value honesty and act with integrity can also reinforce the importance of truthful behavior.

To take on this journey, you’ll need to get clear on your personal values. Cultivating a strong sense of integrity can guide your decision-making towards greater honesty.

Tools and Techniques for Lasting Change

Because there’s a lack of attention paid to pathological lying, there’s no standard treatment protocol. But like any major life change, therapeutic intervention helps. Your treatment team can tailor a strategy to your needs, which may include a combination of methods:  

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you identify what thought process your behaviors are coming from, then work on disrupting and changing it. 
  • Behavioral rehearsal lets you practice alternative, truthful responses to common situations that trigger dishonesty. You might role-play scenarios to reinforce new behaviors.
  • Journaling promotes self-awareness of which thoughts, emotions, and situations are associated with lying, helping you identify patterns and triggers.
  • Daily affirmations can shift your focus to more honesty and integrity, and galvanize your desire for positive change.
  • Role models can inspire and provide guidance on what honest behavior looks like.
  • Setting realistic goals for building honesty empowers you to break down the process into achievable steps and set a clear path for lasting change.
  • Rewarding yourself for staying honest, and celebrating milestones along the way, reinforces positive behavior.

Recovery is never easy. But once you decide to break free from the cycle of deceit, you can work toward building more authentic relationships.

Healing and Rebuilding Trust in Relationships

Being lied to can trigger trauma and grief, and whether your partner chooses to forgive you is up to them. It may take them some time to gain clarity on where they stand, and you can’t force them to speed up their process. In the meantime, you can give your relationship the best chance of healing by taking accountability, apologizing sincerely, keeping promises, and showing your commitment to change through consistent actions

Research shows that “trust harmed by untrustworthy behavior can be effectively restored when individuals observe a consistent series of trustworthy actions.” Trust harmed by the same untrustworthy actions and deception, however, never fully recovers. Promising to change is one thing, but trust can be further broken if your actions don’t match your words. 

Not all relationships can be repaired. Forgiving and forgetting when behavior hasn’t changed only further enables unhealthy patterns.  

Taking accountability and making sincere efforts to be honest might mean there’s hope for your relationship. “If not, it may be difficult to move forward in the relationship,”10 says therapist Laura Sgro. “Sometimes the most helpful solution is to distance yourself.” 

Maintaining Honesty: A Lifelong Commitment

Maintaining honesty is an ongoing effort. But with the right treatment and plan for improvement, you can hold yourself accountable and cultivate a more reliable relationship with yourself and the people around you. 

Taking steps to get better shows a genuine desire to repair damaged relationships by addressing the root cause of your lying behavior. And, as with any recovery process, the sooner you get help, the better.

To learn more about your options, search our list of mental health treatment programs and reach out to admissions staff directly today. 

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