Do you find yourself lying to your close friends and loved ones, but you’re not sure why? Do you lie to yourself but don’t know how to stop lying? Do you lie to get out of uncomfortable situations – situations you most likely go into because you lied in the first place?
Most of us tell little white lies and lie occasionally from time to time. According to a study in Human Communication Research, 2 in 5 American adults report telling a lie at least once a day. Still, understand that lying is an unhealthy habit and one that can get us into increasingly more trouble the more we engage in it.
You’re not a bad person if you’ve told a lie or two, but understanding why you lie and learning how to stop can help you create some positive changes in your life.
If you notice that you’ve been lying a lot and struggle telling the truth, then this article should help you uncover exactly why you’ve been engaging in such behavior. There are myriad reasons why you might be lying, so here we’ll outline some of the most common. We’ll also offer some professional advice on how to look within and uncover the roots of your lying so that you can address the deeper issue that’s causing it.
Why do we lie?
Lying is habitual. We lie outright once or twice, realize that we’ve received a personal benefit with no real serious consequences from it, and figure that we could get away with it a couple more times. Either we didn’t have to take responsibility for wrongdoing, or we managed to lie our way out of punishment or reprimand.
Once we reap some benefits from lying, it can be hard to stop. It almost makes sense to lie, considering that telling the truth and owning up to our behavior might lead to negative outcomes such as punishment, reprimand, or strained relationships.
Most of us lie for myriad reasons, including but not limited to:
- To save face
- To protect someone’s feelings from being hurt
- To avoid taking responsibility
- To mask guilt
- To impress other people
- To make a strong impression
- To convince ourselves
The science of habitual lying
‘Despite the apparent prevalence of lie-telling within society, lying is a complicated behavior that requires breaking the normal, default rules of communication,’ explains Emma J Williams and colleagues in a study published in PLoS One.
‘The liar must, first of all, decide not to assert the truth and then must assert an alternative statement that is plausible and appears informative to the listener, all the while concealing any outward signs of nervousness. Such a pragmatic feat requires cognitive processes in addition to those used when telling the truth.’
Though always a moral issue, some psychologists and neuroscientists view lying with slightly more positive regard. Lying is considered a significant sign of development in young children, given the skills of sophistication and careful attention required to pull it off.
In the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers found that the more we lie, the easier it becomes. If you’re not much of a liar, then almost any lie you tell will take some work and will probably be followed by feelings of guilt and even some anxiety. That’s because lying, according to researchers, elicits a burst of activity in a small, almond-shaped region of the brain known as the amygdala – the same brain region involved in the experience of fear and anxiety.
Lying becomes easier over time because of how the brain works in general. Summed up by the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, the brain learns to shape and function adaptively based on experience and repetitive action.
Such is the basis of much of our current understanding of substance abuse and addiction recovery. The more we use a drug, such as alcohol or cocaine, even sugar, and the more immediate benefit (pleasure, relief, escape) we gain from it, the more the brain learns to crave that substance and achieve its reward again and again.
Since lying is a means of avoiding responsibility, blame, or guilt and helps us avoid punishment or reprimand, the more we do it, the more we learn that this behavior has rewards. Thus we are driven to keep doing it.
What do you call someone who lies all the time?
A person who constantly lies all the time is often referred to as a pathological liar. Not everyone who lies is a pathological liar, but it’s important to understand this type of person. It might be you or someone you know, but a pathological liar’s behavior can cause a lot of trouble in the long term.
Usually, pathological lying, also known as mythomania, stems from a personality disorder. Lies and detection are commonly observed among people with an antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. Lying habits and behaviors are also often seen in people with a borderline personality disorder.
Pathological liars lie compulsively – they almost can’t help it. Friends and families of pathological liars often find their loved one’s lying habits incredibly frustrating. As most of the time, there is no clear reason to tell so many lies. Sure, it’s healthy and mature to be honest, and tell the truth, but it’s not hard to understand why people might lie sometimes.
As mentioned above, little lies often temporarily help us get out of trouble or save face- i.e., there are logical benefits. The problem with pathological lying is that the benefits aren’t always clear.
For example, a compulsive liar might tell a story in which they were the hero or the victim, but which didn’t happen. Perhaps the idea for the story, or the lie, was triggered or elicited by a relevant topic, but still, the lie is not necessary.
The boy who cried wolf
If you’ve ever heard the classic tale of the boy who cried wolf, one of Aesop’s Fables, you’ll understand the dangers of lying. In case you don’t know, the story is about a young boy in a village who repeatedly warns the villagers that a wolf is approaching and is attacking the sheep, even though there is no wolf at all.
The boy cries wolf, and the villagers respond in a hurried panic, only to find that the boy has been lying. He cries wolf again, and again the villagers respond, yet there is still no wolf. Naturally, the villagers grow to distrust the boy. Eventually, there is a wolf, and the town’s flock is in danger. The boy once again cries wolf, but with his history of lying, the villagers no longer believe him, and the flock gets destroyed.
The takeaway message here is that constantly lying to others damages trust. If you always lie to people, sooner or later, they’re likely going to find out that you’re lying. Naturally, they’ll realize that they can’t trust what you say. Thus, even when you are telling the truth, people will be far less likely to believe you.
As humans, we survive, even thrive, through healthy social bonds and closeness with others. When there is a lack of trust in others because one has been caught lying one too many times, it becomes increasingly more difficult to form and maintain those social bonds. Thus, a habitual liar faces a reduced chance of happiness and success in their personal life. They face an increased risk of loneliness and social isolation because their bad habit sooner or later separates them from others.
How to stop lying
Understand the different types of lies
Lying is not only about saying something false. Sometimes we lie by not telling the entire truth. This is known as lying by omission. It’s indirect but can be just as damaging to a relationship as a direct lie.
“When you keep a secret from those closest to you, even with the best of motives, there is a danger that you will create a smaller life within your main life,‘ writes renowned American author Dean Koontz.
‘The first secret will spin off other secrets that also must be kept, complicated webs of evasion that grow into elaborate architectures of repressed truths and subterfuge until you discover that you must live two narratives at once. Because deception requires both bold lies and lies of omission, it stains the soul, muddies the conscience, blurs the vision, and puts you at risk of headlong descent into greater darkness.“
Understand the problem with lying
Frequent lies are detrimental to your relationships. People need to trust each other to be honest and authentic to develop, maintain, and willingly immerse themselves in relationships. If you’re a frequent liar, it’s highly likely that sooner or later, someone is going to see through you. If that other person turns out to be your romantic partner, then they might have to get up and leave to protect themselves from further dishonesty and disrespect.
Figure out why you’re lying
Certain events, people, circumstances, and even tones of voice can trigger us into a lying episode. Perhaps our boss’s energy is authoritative and demanding, and they remind us of a critical, strict parent who made us feel frightened when we were in trouble. Perhaps we find ourselves feeling nervous and awkward in social situations and feel the need to lie to make ourselves seem more successful or confident than we are.
To help yourself overcome your lying habit, it helps to work on increasing your self-awareness. Since you’re reading this article, it may already be the case that you’ve recognized your unhealthy behavior and are seeking ways to correct it, in which case you’re on the right path.
So, take some time for yourself, get out a journal, make a voice recording, or simply pay attention to yourself and think about why you lie so often. Think about where this unhealthy habit may have come from, and consider the different types of situations and circumstances in which it manifests.
These situations, circumstances, feelings, or even people are known as triggers. There is a quality or atmosphere around them that resonates with you and evokes some feeling of discomfort or necessity.
Get to know these triggers. Become familiar with them enough to recognize when they’re present. When you find yourself triggered, be brave enough to look within and see what feeling, what memory what discomfort has been evoked. The more awareness and insight you can bring to your behavior, the easier it will become to improve.
Pause before you speak to stop lying
Each time you feel yourself about to lie, take a moment to pause, breathe, and wait. Many of us are uncomfortable with silence in conversations. We push ourselves to just say something, anything, to avoid silence and the potential awkwardness that comes with it. Enter the lie. We so desperately want to avoid silence that we make up a lie just to have something to say.
Instead of lying just for the sake of filling that space, learn to become comfortable with silence. This might be hard if you’re a nervous person or you struggle with social anxiety, but if that is you, then understand that it truly is okay to pause and sit in silence with someone.
The fear, the belief that they’ll judge you or pressure you to speak, is just an illusion, and anyone who pressures you to speak is probably uncomfortable with silence themselves – they’re not representative of the ‘norm,’ of how things should be.
Be honest with yourself, why are you telling lies?
The unhealthiest, most destructive, and most tragic lies are the ones we tell ourselves. It may be that you have a certain expectation or perception of yourself that you want to uphold and protect at all costs, and for which you’ll go to great lengths to maintain, including self-deception.
“The more we lie to ourselves about how we are contributing to our problems, the more harm we will cause to ourselves and our relationships because we will blame others for undesirable aspects of our lives instead of taking responsibility for our role.” – Cortney S. Warren
Don’t fear judgment: tell the truth
Something that holds many of us back from radical truth and authenticity is a fear of judgment. We might fear that others will judge or criticize us or view us in a negative light, and so we lie. We portray a fabricated image of ourselves, one of success, courage, strength, and rely on other people’s positive views and praise to make ourselves feel better.
A healthy and life-affirming decision you can make today is to let go of your fear of judgment. That means giving yourself the affirmation, validation, and acknowledgment that you would otherwise seek from others. Doing so can be challenging if you’re compulsion to lie stems from insecurity or not feeling good enough, but it’s possible.
A practical and effective way of releasing your fear of judgment and at the same time improving yourself-relationship is to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is the act of allowing and accepting yourself for who you are, including your ‘flaws’ and failures as much as your positive traits and achievements.
Speak to a professional to help compulsive lying
If you’ve tried to curb your lying habit several times but still find yourself telling lies all the time, consider speaking to a qualified mental health professional. Given that a lying habit, compulsive lying, and pathological lying are all potential symptoms of a personality disorder such as NPD (Narcissistic personality disorder) or BPD (Borderline personality disorder), it may be the case that you have some unaddressed mental health issues that are making it hard for you to stop lying.
Please understand that you don’t need to have a personality disorder to benefit from speaking to a mental health professional. There are so many other reasons why we lie, including anxiety, insecurity, and low self-esteem, and all of these are worth addressing in therapy.
A licensed counselor or therapist can help you get to the roots of your lying habit by addressing any issues you have with yourself, unresolved past emotions, and fears. As well as helping you approach, identify, and healthily address them. They can teach you healthy coping mechanisms and tools and techniques for self-management so that you no longer have to rely on lying to get you through.
You can live an honest life free from subtle lies, white lies and you don’t need to be one of those people who lie compulsively. If lying is a serious problem for you, begin your journey to getting help today.