What To Do About The Worst Kind Of Lying

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

A human’s unique ability to speak (in contrast to other forms of communication) is fascinatingly complex. We form thoughts into words so instinctively that we don’t really need to analyze the process to be good at it. We simply learn to speak around two years old and then become more proficient more or less according to our innate ability.

Speech becomes more complicated when we try to decide if what you’re saying is true. Most people think it’s a good thing to say something that is untrue if it is meant to spare the feelings of another person — the classic white lie. But there are many other forms of lying, said with different intent, that most people would also agree are not a good thing.

Writing for Health.com, Sherri Gordon lists other types of lying that are negative:

  • Self-serving lies: Lies you tell to avoid consequences
  • Vindictive lies: Lies that intentionally harm another person
  • Lies of omission: Lies that withhold parts of the truth
  • Prolific lies: Lies you tell for an opportunity or some type of benefit or gain
  • Compulsive lies: Lies that are similar to pathological lying, but are told out of fear or anxiety, rather than manipulation or deceit.

In an observation that should give normal people pause and prompt a little self-reflection, Gordon cites research that suggests most people tell between zero and two lies per day on average. The implications of this research potentially affect all types of relationships — between romantic partners, friends, business associates, parents and children, siblings.

Gordon goes on to explore the most serious type of lying: pathological lying. She begins by noting that there is no professional agreement about a definition for pathological lying, but points to general agreement that a common characteristic is a person twisting a story so that they appear to be the hero or victim in order to solicit admiration or sympathy. Moreover, professionals tend to agree that it must be long-term and excessive, pointing to one study that defines it as “telling five or more lies over a period of 24 hours, every single day, for longer than six months.” While well-adjusted people might look at that definition and wonder how many people that could possibly apply to, some researchers take the dispiriting guess that it could apply to 5-13% of the population.

No matter the actual percentage of pathological liars living among us, it’s wise to develop an ability to spot one when you see one. One consistent signal is when someone tells you something that is literally unbelievable. In addition, writes Gordon, “some scientists also theorize that most people tend to show non-verbal signs of lying. The folowing non-verbal cues may indicate that someone is lying:

  • Avoiding looking at a person or making deliberate eye contact that lasts too long
  • Fidgeting or moving around
  • Displaying restless foot and leg movements
  • Making frequent body posture changes
  • Being vague and not answering questions directly
  • Playing with their hair or pressing their fingers to their lips
  • Sweating or having a flushed appearance on their skin

If you have a relationship with someone you suspect is a pathological liar, your options depend on what your relationship is. Your choices are quite different if that someone is one of your children, for example, or your partner or a friend. Gordon describes ways that you can cope with a pathological liar, which include:

  • “Believe in yourself and trust your reality.” Pathological liars can be very convincing. Confide in a trusted friend to see if they agree with your assessment of the situation.
  • “Set boundaries with the person.” If you want to maintain a relationship with the person — if, for example, they’re a close relative — do so carefully.
  • “Encourage them to talk with a professional.” It’s not your responsibility to cure anyone. The best help you might be able to do is encourage them to talk to a counselor.
  • “Consider ending the relationship.” If the person is a business associate or somewhat of a friend, it might just be best to end the relationship.

Read Gordon’s full article here.