Sydney Hills Counselling Blog

When Does Lying Become Pathological?

Compulsive Lying

Most of us have told a few ‘white lies’ perhaps to make someone feel better, or to avoid an uncomfortable situation. Little white lies such as, “No, really you look fine in those jeans!” to a friend or, “It’s not you; I’m just not ready for a relationship right now…” to a date who’s just not our ‘type’. We may also lie from time to time when we want to appear likable if we want to appear more competent or confident than we actually feel, or if we want to wiggle out of an unwanted invitation or situation. Sometimes though, the intention of lying to another person can be to deceive them, and this can seriously affect and jeopardise our relationships with other people.

Sir Walter Scott famously quoted, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” When lying reaches a point where a person lies habitually and without any control, they are considered to be a ‘compulsive’ or ‘pathological’ liar. A compulsive or pathological liar is an individual who lies all the time. It becomes a way of life for them when telling the truth is uncomfortable or inconvenient. The person who lies habitually has usually learned to lie when they were children, in response to living in an emotionally unsafe home environment or to cope with difficult feelings of shame or anxiety. 

Pathological or compulsive lying is a way for individuals to avoid difficulties, even when they face new and more complex difficulties resulting from their habitual lying. Very often, compulsive liars believe that they are flawed and not good enough. Because of this, they feel the need to lie in order to gain the acceptance and approval of those people they admire and look up to. Another reason some people habitually lie is to create psychological ‘space’ from others; these individuals may lie to avoid feeling smothered or controlled. 

Pathological liars live in a fantasy world and often have a difficult time committing to relationships, their jobs, and this tends to alienate their family members who over time, tire of being constantly lied to. These individuals also fail to consistently tell the same lie over and over again, often tripping themselves up on minor details when they tell the same lie. An easy way to trip up a compulsive liar is to ask them the same question a few times throughout the same day or week to see whether their story changes. 

Some individuals who lie habitually can tend to thrive on being the centre of attention and will do whatever it takes to maintain a captive audience. When they have everyone’s full attention, this motivates them to embellish their lie even more. The pathological liar most often has a need to feel important, feel superior to others, has low self-worth, or is craving sympathy or attention from others. 

When a pathological liar is caught out, they may become defensive, tell another lie to cover up their original lie, become aggressive or they may even seek revenge on the person who dared to confront them about their lie. 

So how can you tell if someone is a pathological liar? 

Their stories are rarely consistent

They tend to lie even when there’s no logical reason to lie

They often fail to differentiate between their lies and reality

They make up bogus accomplishments to be viewed as more worthy or distinguished

They have a tendency to exaggerate or embellish everything they tell you

They tend to make up ‘happy stories’ about ‘happy times’ to mask any painful or negative experiences or feelings.

They will never admit that they’re experiencing any setbacks or difficulties.

Compulsive lying can have a significant adverse impact on most areas of an individual’s life. 

Whilst lying can seem to make life easier for the pathological liar, it frequently creates havoc in their life; work, relationships, and friendships. Each of our relationships and friendships requires trust; without trust, everything we say can be called into question. When others feel constantly betrayed and unclear about their real thoughts, feelings, and intentions, it can result in disconnection or broken ties with others. 

In addition to affecting a pathological liar’s relationships, studies have indicated that lying can create personal distress for these individuals, even when they get away with it. In a study involving 2,558 participants, researchers found that compulsive or pathological liars are more likely to withdraw from others. This can result in them feeling socially disconnected and may eventually lead to these individuals experiencing depression or other mental health disorders. The study also concluded that pathological lying can result in the liar becoming socially insensitive, blind to the feelings of others, and they may also lack a real understanding of the devastating impact their lies cause.

If you believe that habitual lying is a problem for you or a significant other, counselling with a registered, professional counsellor can help you to identify and address the underlying causes. Sydney Hills Counselling offers a completely safe, non-judgemental, supportive space where you are treated with respect and empathy. We will aim to help you to identify and address the causes of your compulsive lying so that you can live a more satisfying, fulfilling, and authentic life. Cognitive behavioural therapy can help a client to identify situations, thoughts and feelings that cause them to lie, understand when they’re likely to lie, and provide them with skills to behave and relate to others in a more authentic way. 

Take the first step to overcoming compulsive lying by contacting Sydney Hills Counselling for a confidential chat or for further information to see how we can help you. Call us today on (02) 9158-6277 or email us at [email protected].


Lee, J. J., Hardin, A. E., Parmar, B., & Gino, F. (2019). The interpersonal costs of dishonesty: How dishonest behavior reduces individuals’ ability to read others’ emotions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(9), 1557–1574.


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