Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said. - Mark Twain
Anyone remember the Baron von Munchausen? He was a German aristocrat famous for his tall tales of adventure during his time in the Russian military and lends his name to the Munchausen syndrome, a condition where the patient feigns illness, to be able to return to the hospital. The problem of compulsive lying has come under the scanner over the past few years, as research into this area of human behavior has picked up. There are several questions which come to mind when we are confronted by an individual who is a compulsive liar. Is it a disorder by itself or is it a symptom of other underlying personality disorders? Can it exist in children? Let's take a look at this behavioral disorder, its probable causes, symptoms and some treatments which may be effective in controlling it.
Compulsive lying disorder
Why do people lie? The most common reason behind lying is escapism, a tendency to circumvent a tough situation, instead of facing up to it. One may even lie to make someone feel better. There is, however, a disorder that can take lying to the next level, quite literally. Pseudologia fantastica is a condition first described by a German psychiatrist, Anton Delbrück, in 1891. Sometimes the term pathological liar is also attributed to compulsive liars, there is, however, a difference between the two. A pathological liar will lie to make himself look good in a particular situation, they tend to lie when they want something done and will keep up the pretense as long as they can portray themselves in a positive light. Compulsive liars on the other hand know they are lying but can't help it, lying is second nature to them and they will resort to it without thought. Compulsive lying can develop over many years, is a complex condition, affecting men, women and children alike, and cannot be easily diagnosed. Compulsive lying is not recognized as a clinical disorder but can become an issue in legal cases, when the individual actually believes his lies, as this can alter the results of polygraph tests and interrogations.
The behavior of a compulsive liar is not drastically different from any other person, it is only after prolonged conversation with an individual with Pseudologia fantastica, that the condition becomes apparent. However, there are certain symptoms which indicate the presence of compulsive lying.
- Habitual lying: Compulsive liars do not follow any typical pattern of lying, more often than not, it is their automatic response to questions. It does not matter if the lie is a small or big one, a compulsive liar will lie nonetheless and find it easier to fabricate stories than to tell the truth. They often find it impossible to keep their stories straight and tell multiple versions of the same untruth to different people.
- Implausible Stories: Compulsive liars often make up tales, exaggerated accounts of situations they have been in, or things they have done. This embellishing is not due to any psychotic illness or deluded thinking, but to simply make the accounts more striking and garner the maximum attention. Often these stories may have some grain of truth in them, such as an account of having been at the President's speech, the embellishing can happen when an individual says that the President actually spoke to him afterward and they struck a friendship.
- Chronic in nature: The behavior of compulsive liars is not relegated to pressure situations, where they may lie to escape punishment or ridicule. It is a condition which often lasts for a lifetime and is repeated innumerable times, often without rhyme or reason and at the expense of sounding shallow and inconsequential. Compulsive liars don't lie to gain the upper hand or create opportunities, often they lie because they can't help it.
- False memory syndrome: Compulsive liars may be afflicted with False memory syndrome, a condition in which a factually incorrect memory is believed to be true, and affects the relationships of the patient. There is a tendency to shy away from evidence that may expose the falsehood of this memory, and lying is one way to keep it alive in the mind of the patient.
- Internal motivations: Often, a clinical diagnosis of a compulsive liar will reveal an internal motive for the behavior. Compulsive lying has been observed in individuals who have suffered from childhood abandonment issues, or faced assault or prolonged depression as adults.
- Social background: The environment in which a child grows affects its psyche to a great extent. The way a child's lies are treated by the parents ultimately molds its perception of the fine line between truth and deception. If tackled in a positive and understanding manner, a child can be taught the importance of being truthful , however, harsh punishments or even ignorance can foster a habit of lying from a very young age.
- Personality Disorder: Compulsive lying can also occur as a result of personality disorders, the most common of which is Anti-social Personality Disorder (ASPD), a condition in which the patient lies for the sense of power and influence it grants them. They have very little regard for moral values and show no guilt for their crimes or any improvement after being punished. There are other personality disorders which can cause compulsive lying such as borderline personality disorders, narcissistic personality disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders. However, compulsive lying is but one of the outcomes of these disorders and not their primary symptom or cause.
The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital conducted a study of compulsive liars which showed that nearly 40% of the test group had suffered some central nervous system dysfunction. Though this has opened new avenues of treatment in the future, there is no pharmaceutical medication available to treat the condition.
- Psychotherapy has proven helpful in providing some modicum of relief to compulsive liars, however, it is time-taking and does not guarantee results. The procedure involves forcing the liar to face his fears and untruths, to make them realize how it is affecting their lives.
- As is the case with most compulsive disorders, it is essential that the person himself initiates the treatment because a compulsive liar will never admit he is at fault. Any form of counseling or therapy shall only be effective when the patient is fully aware of his condition and mentally prepared to take the necessary steps to rid himself of it.
- A good psychiatrist can also help diagnose and prescribe suitable treatment if there are any other visible symptoms of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder before a full-blown problem arises.
- For compulsive lying disorder in children, it is essential to identify it at an early stage. Most often, it occurs due to excessive disciplining by parents. Hence, it is recommended that the instances of lying on the part of the child be tackled in a proactive manner. Snap judgments of guilt can scar the young psyche and promote the use of lies as a tool for escaping punishment, even in cases of genuine wrongdoing. A consultation with a child psychologist can always be scheduled if the lying continues.
It is hard to maintain a healthy, trustful relationship with someone suffering from compulsive lying disorder. They may not have problems making friends, but keeping them is a whole ball-game altogether, and compulsive liars often face the prospect of unloved, lonely lives. Yet, with a successful diagnosis and therapy program, this seemingly impossible hurdle can be crossed and the path of truth be found once again.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for professional medical advice.