Saturday, May 1, 2010

Compulsive Lying

Why do some people lie over and over again, sometimes even about seemingly inconsequential things?  A good assessment may be needed first to rule out substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors as well as conditions that impact reality testing that may be causing or contributing to the lying.  When it truly turns out that someone is simply just doing a lot of lying, it may be most helpful to think about it behaviorally rather than making interpretations about what the lying might mean about the person.

Sometimes the lying is instrumental – the person is getting something out of it (real or imagined) like:
  • Avoiding or delaying conflict or discomfort (such as being punished, having someone angry at you, or having to do something you don’t want to do)
  • Being able to do something you believe others would object to
  • Getting someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do
  • Image preservation/enhancement or attention (even negative attention)
In the case of instrumental lying, one can try to modify the contingencies (rewards and punishments) such that the lying is no longer paying off for them or such that honesty is even more rewarding for them.

Motivation for change may be built by helping the person who is lying to differentiate the short-term results from the longer-term consequences.  In this way they may begin to see that lying creates more problems than it solves in the long run.  It may also help them to understand the importance of trust in building and maintaining relationships and how to cultivate it.

Sometimes the person has been lying for so long that it is automatic or a habit (like nail biting) and they aren't even aware they are doing it.  In that case they need to learn to recognize the behavior and then correct it – even if it is after the fact at first.  This means going back and saying, “I’m sorry, that was a lie.  Here is the truth”.

If you or someone you love has a bad habit of lying, it may be helpful to meet with a trained mental health professional like a psychologist to assist in defining the problem and exploring solutions. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy. Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.