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A Compulsive Liar vs. A Pathological Liar:

Updated: Jul 25

How to spot them and what to do

Compulsive liars bend the truth about most everything. They often lie for no apparent reason or benefit. They make lies up more spontaneously, and it can almost seem like an automatic response or habit. Compulsive liars prefer to tell lies they think people want to hear and often find it easier to lie and avoid confrontations.


Compulsive liars know the difference between reality and lies and are more likely to admit to lying when caught in a lie. They lie for several reasons, but the consensus is that it develops in early childhood. They may have grown up in an environment where lying was necessary and routine or experienced childhood trauma.


According to Medicine Net, compulsive lairs are obvious and display the classic lying behaviors, which include avoiding eye contact, breaking out into a sweat, and tripping over their words or rambling.


Pathological liars, on the contrary, know how to be confident while lying and use their pathological lying trait as a defense mechanism (e.g., they fix their gaze upon you rather than looking away).


Pathological liars can be very manipulative and generally lie to get their way. They have little to no regard for whom they hurt. Their lies are usually very dramatic, complicated, and detailed.


Unlike the compulsive liar, who generally knows right from wrong, a pathological liar lives with a false sense of reality. If confronted, they become defensive and never admit their lies.


Some evidence from a 2007 study suggests that issues affecting the central nervous system may predispose someone to be pathological. Another study in 2018 indicates the localization of increased prefrontal white matter in pathological liars.

Lying is generally believed to be developed as a coping mechanism in early childhood to achieve safety, gain affection or avoid punishment. It is often associated with some other form of mental health disorder, including but not limited to personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. It can also appear in conjunction with behavioural disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD.


Certain personality traits where pathological lying occurs include:

  • Narcissism or self-centered behaviors

  • Obsessive, controlling, and compulsive behaviours

  • Manipulative, temperamental, and jealous behaviours

  • Angry, aggressive, and abusive behaviours

  • Deceptive

  • Selfishness

  • Impulsivity

  • Socially awkward, uncomfortable, or isolated

  • Low self-esteem

Pathological lying is more common among those with personality disorders like BPD and Narcissistic personality disorder. At times, it may not be lying for the sake of lying. Still, the perception of reality these individuals experience is different than fact. Other times it is to manipulate the environment to get their subconscious needs met, whatever they may be.



How to identify signs of pathological lying

Identifying a pathological liar can be difficult, but some traits of a pathological liar may include the following:

  • They lie about insignificant details. Often elaborately and with lots of detail;

  • They contradict themselves with different versions of the same story;

  • They seem to have little to no regret regarding how their lies affect others;

  • May become angry and defensive when confronted (even if there is proof);

  • They portray themselves as the hero when sharing their experiences and accomplishments or as the victim looking for sympathy.


How to deal with a habitual liar

It can sometimes feel maddening when dealing with a compulsive or pathological liar. It is hard not to take being lied to personally but keep in mind that their lying is not about you.


Here are a few pointers to help handle a conversation with a habitual liar:


Do not engage: When catching them in a lie, let them know that you know they are lying, but stay out of the debate. Someone who pathologically lies may tend to first respond with another lie, so arguing may only escalate the situation. If you confront them about their lie, chances are that they'll deny it and can even become enraged at the accusation.


Keep your cool: As frustrating as it may be, it is essential not to let your anger get the best of you. You can walk away. You may also need to consider ending the relationship if their lies continue to cause you harm. Set boundaries that keep your mental health safe.


Get professional help: A mental health professional mightbe required to deal with deep-seated issues and any underlying mental disorder effectively. As a loved one, you may also benefit from psychotherapy or a specialized family program, such as the Nomina Wellness Virtual Extended Family Program.


Be supportive. Let them know that they do not need to try to impress you. Encourage them and let them know that you value them for who they really are. Model acceptable behaviour such as don't lie and admit mistakes. This is especially true if you are a role model to children or others. This normalizes that it's okay to have faults.



Treatment for compulsive and pathological liars

Habitual lying can be challenging to treat, but with time and effort, it can be treated. Compulsive and pathological lairs are encouraged to seek the help of a qualified psychotherapist. However, the success of the treatment depends upon whether the person agrees that they have an issue.


Treatment options may include (and may be used in combination depending on the underlying psychiatric condition).

  • Psychotherapy

  • Group therapy

  • Antipsychotic medications

A registered psychotherapist can help habitual liars understand their condition and how it affects the people in their lives. A registered psychotherapist can also help diagnose any personality or behavioural disorders that may be present.


As a final note, Family support goes a long way in overcoming habitual lying along with the treatment. An individual's success can depend heavily on the support they receive from their loved ones and on a healthy state of family functioning.



If you, or your loved one, would like help with habitual lying, call Nomina Integrated Health to find a professional, registered psychotherapist near you.

A Compulsive Liar vs. A Pathological Liar