Most of us know someone who lies a lot and there’s a good chance that at some point, we have accused them of being a ‘compulsive liar’ or a ‘pathological liar’. But do you really know what those terms mean? Is that person really a pathological liar?
To answer the question simply: a pathological liar is someone who lies purposefully in order to get things their own way and to manipulate others. This is the person who might lie about being single in order to date someone else, they might lie about their achievements in order to make themselves look or sound better, or they might lie about their qualifications in order to land a job. This is the liar with ‘intent’.
Meanwhile, the compulsive liar is someone who lies because they have no control over what they are saying. This is someone literally compelled to lie and who might make up stories with no real end goal in mind. A compulsive liar might lack impulse control and literally feel unable to tell the truth, or they might lie because they fear the truth and want to make up a more pleasurable narrative. In some cases a compulsive liar might be well aware of their lies, whereas in other cases they might have no awareness of them.
The question that then follows, is whether the person you know really has either of these conditions. Pathological lying only is considered among real mental disorders and can be found with diagnostic criteria in the DSMV. Rather than being annoyed at your friend who keeps telling porkies then, should you in fact be concerned for their mental health? At which point does lying to get your way become pathological?
The answer is hard to define. Pathological lying, also called pseudologia fantastica or mythomania, is both its own standalone psychological disorder and a symptom of many others – psychopathy being one of the prevalent ones. If the person you know is also prone to stepping on the toes of others to get their own way and if they exhibit a lack of empathy, then they may be a psychopath. That is not to say that they are dangerous – there are many high functioning psychopaths who will never commit crimes.
Pathological lying tends to involve the individual making themselves look better in some way, will be internally motivated (i.e. they are not lying because they are being in some way threatened) and will be repeated. At the end of the day though, it is a blurry line and not one that is easy to define.
The same goes for compulsive lying, which tends to be more nervous and random in nature but is still difficult to identify. This does not have its own diagnostic criteria and is not associated with conditions such as psychopathy – though it may present alongside other forms of compulsive behavior.
If you find that a friend or colleague is a compulsive or pathological liar, then the best thing you can do is simply to ignore the behaviour as far as possible. Directly confronting someone about their lie could well make matters worse if they become defensive – and especially if this is a person who may also show signs of psychopathy. Likewise, if you challenge a compulsive liar, you may damage their world view or self-esteem. Better is simply to make a mental note of their lie. Make the right noises but act based on the reality you know to be true. Easier said than done of course but better for everyone in the long run.