Help me become a beacon of truthiness.
November 18, 2010 6:17 PM   Subscribe

I lie compulsively, and I'm looking for resources and strategies that will help me stop.

I'm 23, female, and I see a very competent therapist once a week. She's helping me work on this issue as well as a couple of others (depression and social anxiety).

I tell “white lies” almost constantly, and I've done so for my entire adult life. They're never malicious or self-aggrandizing; I've never spread a rumor about anyone, or lied on a resume, or cheated on a partner and covered it up, or anything like that. I mostly lie to “save face” or to avoid the feeling of shame that comes with someone close to me being disappointed or upset with me. I don't often get caught in lies, because most of the ones I tell are about things that seem fairly trivial. A couple of examples: my best friend will ask what I had for lunch, and I'll reflexively say something like “I went to Trendy Salad Bar and made a beet-and-chickpea salad and it was so delicious” when I really stayed home and ate an entire pint of potato salad straight from the fridge. Or my mother will ask me whether I saw a doctor about the weird rash on my leg, and instead of saying “Nah, I just can't afford to see a doctor and I'm hoping it will go away on its own”, I'll be like “Why yes, I visited a very nice dermatologist and he told me it will probably clear up in a few weeks”. The problem has gotten to the point where I'm building corroborating stories to back up “small” lies like these, and I tell so many that they are sometimes hard to keep track of. I feel guilty about this all the time, and it's making my life more complicated and less enjoyable. I've tried to just stop lying and I've found it very difficult, as I tend to lie without really thinking about it at all.

I'm interested in augmenting my talk therapy with books or websites designed to help people stop lying compulsively. But I've had very little luck finding books/sites that are aimed at liars who feel bad and want to stop... most resources that are designed to help people deal with pathological lying seem to be aimed at the victims of sociopaths or cheating spouses, and the advice they contain probably wouldn't be applicable to my problem.

If anyone has resources to suggest, or advice on things I can try, I would be much obliged. Please try to avoid advice that is foremost designed to point out that lying is bad. I understand that I have a problem, and I'm very aware that telling these sorts of lies is disrespectful and unfair to my family/friends.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I had this problem. I beat it by telling all of my friends that I was a compulsive liar, that I had lied to them all the time, and that I was going to try really really hard to not lie anymore.

I lost a lot of friends, mind you. But it gave me permission to publicly catch myself, because my friends knew I was trying to get it under control. "Hey, did you see that movie with Bette Midler and the horse?" "Yeah, I saw it last week.... wait, no. That was a lie. I'm sorry."

Honestly, though, after I told all my friends and after all of the fallout that came with it, I was able to stop pretty easily. Too much riding on it.
posted by Jairus at 6:46 PM on November 18, 2010 [10 favorites]

These lies that the have to be justified by other lies become a house of cards. When (not if) those lies are exposed, it will make things infinitely harder than if you had just told the truth in the first place. You will be tarred as a liar, and it will affect the quality of your relationships. Even if no one confronts you about them directly, people will start talking about how you "lie for no reason."

I used to have an issue with this, especially in romantic relationships. Whenever I didn't want to tell my girlfriend what she didn't want to hear, it was so much easier just to make something up. For example, I occasionally talked to an ex on the phone, but she really didn't like it when I did, so I would do it when she wasn't around/say I was talking to someone else. But in the end, talking to an ex girlfriend behind my girlfriend's back just made me seem so much sketchier than if I were to be up front about it that it deeply eroded the trust in our relationship (on top of other white lies I told)

What I started doing to avoid this kind of behavior was to just take a second or two before responding to people in situations where I was likely to lie. That may not seem like much, but it's really all you need to think through the true risk/benefit of this kind of behavior. It's basically never worth it, as you never gain much through lying. Even the momentary benefit of making yourself look better is, in the long run, negated by the guilt you have about the lie.

It's a tough habit to kick, and it takes some discipline at first, but after a while, truth telling will just become second nature. Good luck.
posted by orville sash at 6:59 PM on November 18, 2010

I had this problem as a little kid, maybe from age 3 to about 8 (and since a write a silly blog of fanciful lies as an adult, I arguably still have this problem, though I've sublimated it). I don't remember why I lied all the time, but I lied all the time. I went to kindergarten and told everyone my house had burned down. We moved a lot and every time I went to a new school, I lied completely about everything that had ever happened to me before. I made up friends and I made up events and although I think the official decision was that I had a hard time discerning fantasy from reality at a young age, I remember knowing that I was making things up. I am not sure if I lied to save face or for some other reason.

I stopped when I started writing stories instead. I think a lot of my lying was "what if" based. Like "what if my house burned down" turned into "my house burned down." "What if i had a new best friend" turned into "I have a new best friend." "What if I had been really popular at my old school" turned into "I was really popular at my old school." Etc. I'm not sure if that would help you, but it does seem like some of your lies are wish fulfillment. I think the gift that made me a sane(r) person was a little blue diary. It was half full of truth and half full of lies, but once I had it, I stopped lying to other people.
posted by millipede at 7:22 PM on November 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I wonder if social anxiety books/resources might be able to help more than the ones that are aimed particularly at compulsive lying. It sounds like your lies are based on social anxiety--wanting to avoid an awkward conversation about not going to the doctor, or fearing that you'll be judged if your friend finds out you stayed home and ate potato salad instead of going out. It seems to me that the solution would be breaking down the instinct to avoid uncomfortable situations at all costs; if telling the truth is no longer scary (or at least, not overwhelmingly scary), then the instinct to lie will be easier to resist.
posted by kagredon at 7:36 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've tried to just stop lying and I've found it very difficult, as I tend to lie without really thinking about it at all.

I have to admit that I don't really understand that – you are saying that you don't feel like you make the conscious decision to lie when you speak? Do you generally not take the time to think about what you are about to say?
posted by halogen at 7:37 PM on November 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like kagredon's and halogen's comments. Why are you lying? Social anxiety (embarrassment?) was my first thought, but not taking the time to think before speaking is very plausible, too.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:01 PM on November 18, 2010

Each of the examples you give are lies you tell to avoid shame that is unwarranted. Maybe spend some time reflecting on that? There's nothing wrong with potato salad, and lots of people can't afford to go to a doctor about every little thing (many can't afford to go for BIG things.)

Maybe instead of worrying about the lies, try to get over the shame you feel about your perceived imperfections and limitations. The potato salad episode is an endearing quirk, if you ask me. Please give yourself permission to like yourself.
posted by fritley at 8:03 PM on November 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

You may want to ask a mod to post an email address where people can reach you if they don't want to post publicly about this.
posted by decathecting at 8:11 PM on November 18, 2010

Mod note: From the OP:
I can be reached at
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:23 PM on November 18, 2010

You know, I'm just going to throw this out there, but I really don't think you have a problem; or rather, you might have a problem, but it isn't being a pathological liar. You're feeling shame about lying about things- and you lie about things to avoid feeling shame.

I just want to say that there is a huge difference between self-aggrandizing lies and what I call "avoidance" lies. "Avoidance" lies and that pattern of lying are very, very common in certain people who have been abused, judged, or has overprotective or controlling parents. It is akin to "lies of omission" - the point isn't really the story you come up with, the point is hiding your weaknesses.

So I would ask yourself why you need to hide your weaknesses. Here's the part where psychological evaluation is important- because there's a big difference between lying to protect yourself from the judgement of others, and lying because of shame only you feel and are projecting onto others.

In other words, if your mom really can't trust your decision making skills, and she would flip out about you not going to the doctor for the rash, then lying is prudent and it's protecting you from what is her problem. If your friend would openly trash you for eating unhealthily or whatever, lying is okay. But if these people (or other people) would respond with kindess if you told the truth, and you're still lying reflexively, that's where you have a problem, because your defense mechanism is no longer reflecting reality.

The other option is to learn to confront them and not allow them to judge you- being able to be honest comes with a certain power dynamic. That would mean developing skills of self-assertion.

Just thought I'd offer that perspective. I know it's distressing to you, but all lying is not equal-and lying to protect someone (including yourself) can be okay.
posted by Nixy at 9:17 PM on November 18, 2010 [22 favorites]

I stopped myself, said "no, that was a lie, sorry. I don't know why I said that" then told the truth and moved on.

Or "well, that's what I WISH I'd done, but really I ate some potato salad."

People were chill about it, even though it was a little odd.

I tried to be lighthearted about it, like "someone flipped my lie switch today, sorry--I don't know what's gotten into me! Anyway..."

ANOTHER IMPORTANT HABIT: I used to lie because I was raised by very critical, boundary-pushing people who would never listen to "I don't feel like talking about it". They'd just become more invested in getting the information from me.

I had to learn to say "nothing interesting" or "I don't want to talk about it" or "I'm not going to tell you." Came off as blunt bordering on rude sometimes I'm sure, but I needed to learn how to set boundaries so I didn't feel like lying was the only way I could maintain my privacy.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:06 PM on November 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

In your examples I don't think there's really much wrong with the situations in which you're lying... if I'd eaten a pint of potato salad for lunch, I'd probably lie about it too and who hasn't lied to a parent to avoid a lecture or unnecessary fuss?

What strikes me is the elaborate and unnecessary detail in your lies, particularly with the lunch thing - why didn't you just say you had a sandwich or something like that? Maybe as a starting point you could work on scaling back the actual content of the lies and skip the unnecessary detail.
posted by missmagenta at 12:24 AM on November 19, 2010

I have two ideas.

The first is to work on building your own confidence. Go and learn more about things you're good at, take on little projects and complete them (garden project? art project? writing project?). If there are things you are embarrassed to be really bad at, see if you can do something about it. If you're short on body confidence, go to yoga or pilates or something. If you don't like your diet, make an effort to improve it.

Maybe you lie because deep down you believe that what you really are is not good enough. If you can become comfortable in your own skin, you'll be comfortable telling the truth about it.

The second idea is to work on assertiveness. Learn to stand up for yourself (in a pleasant fashion) when other people start being negative about you. If you have friends and family who make a habit of making negative comments, start teaching them politely that it's not acceptable and you won't put up with it. If you have friends who won't stop even then, maybe start distancing yourself from them and find better friends.

If you lie because you find criticism difficult, or you have had too much of it over the years and you're fed up of it, then empowering yourself to deal with the criticism may mean you don't need to avoid it by lying so much.
posted by emilyw at 1:23 AM on November 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to lie because I was raised by very critical, boundary-pushing people who would never listen to "I don't feel like talking about it". They'd just become more invested in getting the information from me.

I think the single most important thing that increases truth-telling is just finding people you honestly trust. Probably most effective is finding a partner you trust, since that's someone you have a consistent relationship with...

I used to lie in tiny little ways on a semi-regular basis without thinking about it, just because I grew up not trusting my parents so it was a self-defensive reaction. Once i found myself in a trusting relationship, I kept being surprised that I could tell the truth - that is, I used to think about what I would say before saying it, sort of make sure it would be okay to say, and alter it if it wouldn't be. It was very freeing to discover I could just say whatever I was thinking.

It really changed my inner dialogue, which had so often been taken up with working out the best way to explain something, even something perfectly fine. I always felt like I had to come up with a story even when the truth was not at all offensive or worrisome, just to smooth the edges or make things just a tiny bit better. Once I was in a relationship with someone I really trusted, I felt as if I was released from that inner place of fear, which I think is what (this kind of) lying is all about. You're afraid people won't accept the real you, so you present yourself differently.

So - therapy is good, becoming aware of the issue is good, but the best thing is opening yourself up to people you really trust and letting them know who you are. You're a person who had potato salad for lunch, and you're still lovable.
posted by mdn at 8:05 AM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

any alcoholism in your family? lying is actually a pretty common characteristic of adult children of alcoholics. 'Adult children of alcoholics lie when it would be just as easy to tell the truth.' the full list is here.
posted by msconduct at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

« Older How can I encourage my boyfriend to plan dates...   |   What is this knee rash? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.