I chronically lie to people and have for a long time. How can I possibly stop?
December 25, 2012 7:22 AM   Subscribe

I chronically lie to people and have for a long time. How can I possibly stop?

Where to start? Well, I guess by saying that I think I do it because I am deeply insecure. I tend to start lying more when I feel like I have failed badly at something or am being rejected for some reason. Having sat here and thought about it a bit, I think I always did it to an extent. Then again, I am not really sure about early childhood, but at least in middle school it started and pretty much never stopped. I started writing a whole history of the development of this but stopped as it would 1. Be WAY too long to digest and 2. Out me.

I think what propels it is a few things. The deep insecurity stems in part from very very real rejection I did suffer socially in early childhood, middle and high school from my peers. I was pretty nerdy and also relatively smart. I am by nature very shy and socially awkward and very nervous about getting close to anyone. I also had a lot of pressure on me from my family to succeed. I flunked out of college because I stopped going to class (long story as to why). That is when things REALLY got bad in terms of the lying.
To sum it up, my whole life since then has been embellished. It is not that very interesting things haven’t happened to me or that I haven’t done some interesting things myself. But somehow that doesn't feel like enough.

So I build falsehood after falsehood on what I have actually done. It is HIGHLY irrational. I know that, in my current state, people would like me for who I am. I do genuinely try my hardest to be a good person otherwise. I go out of my way to help my friends, family, and even strangers. I truly get a good feeling from being kind. But I feel trapped. Everyone I know and love has heard the same narrative. Only one person MIGHT have been calling me out on it, but I am not even sure on that. He would never tell me. If I come clean now, I will destroy a lot of trust and good will. But I really want to be myself. I am sick of living behind what I feel is a barrier I have constructed to prevent others from getting too close. I am not in a position to seek therapy right now due to financial reasons. Obviously, I feel like I can tell no one about this. I feel like I have created a self-fulfilling prophecy where everyone I know WILL end up hating me after I admit that I have been lying to their faces for as long as I have known them, just like I felt hated as a child. How could I possibly start changing this? Does it make me a bad person? Plenty of other people experience being socially isolated and insecure and don’t do this. Does it mean I have some sort of personality disorder? I occasionally worry about being a narcissist as I definitely do this: "exaggerating their own importance, achievements, and talents", but I do have empathy, and do not really see the rest of the traits associated with that disorder in myself. Are there other things it could be called diagnostically? I focus on that one because it scares me the most.

It might also be important to note that I lie about huge things, like having finished school to some, my work history, etc. and not small things like what I had for breakfast. I wouldn't do the latter. I WISH it were the other way around, but it's not.

I am very open to engaging in discussion over email if you would like to try to help me. I sometimes feel like the only solution is to withdraw from the world. There are way more motivations than this, I guess, but it is a start. My throwaway email is thissentenceisfalseisntit@yahoo.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Lying is not only about misleading and embellishing. It's about hiding. You hide not because you don't think you'll be appreciated, but because the intimacy of actually being seen is too painful and makes you feel too vulnerable. Therapy could help with that.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:34 AM on December 25, 2012 [11 favorites]

I suggest you start by telling people the truth. Every time you do it you will feel better. Don't overwhelm yourself by thinking about telling the truth to everyone, although eventually this may or may not be a goal of yours. Do completely stop the lying. Start by telling a loved one or family member, and see where it takes you. When it comes to 'everyone'- maybe an honest update (or if you're not a member yet, a new profile) on linkedin would do the trick for some of this. But start small, with one loved one.

You've already started with all of us! Yes you're anonymous but it's kind of like going to confession (I'm not catholic so apologies if I have this all wrong)- the cathartic properties might help you come clean.

Easier said than done, so IF you feel like you're going in the right direction, be gentle with yourself.
posted by saraindc at 7:35 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pick one person. The one person you feel most loved and accepted by. The one person you trust most in the world. Tell that person the truth about one thing. Tell them what you told us here, that you've always felt like you're not good enough, and that you're not sure why you do this, but you want to stop, and so you want to tell them the truth about X. Ask for their support. Start there. Baby steps.

You're not the only person who does this. To a greater or lesser degree, most people do this sometimes. It doesn't mean that you're a bad person, nor does it mean that you have some sort of serious mental illness (and by the way, stop trying to diagnose yourself over the internet, because everyone who starts reading a lot about various illnesses thinks they have all of them, and it's almost never true. You're not alone, no matter how much you feel like you are.

As soon as you are able, get some therapy. There may be low-cost resources available to you that will help. I know it's really, really difficult to ask for help, especially when you might feel as though you're a bad person who doesn't deserve help. But you are not a bad person, and you do deserve help.

Feel free to MeMail me any time if you need someone to talk to.
posted by decathecting at 7:51 AM on December 25, 2012 [7 favorites]

My solution has been to speak in understatements and humorous non sequiturs. I went to school at a "small university in Maryland" and my "family" lives in Upstate New York. In reality, I went to a relatively well-known school that I don't want to talk about generally, and my family is basically one parent (my family in general doesn't make for great conversation). And that's really all that people need to know. Sometimes it makes me a little difficult to be around, but at least it's not lying by commission.

So I completely agree, talking about yourself is a difficult balancing problem, especially if you're afraid of what being too open about yourself. After all, why does a relative stranger need to know about what kind of family you come from or what your exact ethnic background is? I don't like smalltalk that's too personal and invasive. If someone's going to ask me something like that, they had better volunteer a similar piece of information first.

And really, why the hell would someone really, actually need to know whether you finished school, or when, or in what? You "went" to school somewhere, you "were interested" in some subject or another, you would "like to do something with" some semi-specific career area. Lying is trying to give the "right" answer to satisfy the wants of the person you're talking to. It can be an important realization that you don't have to give them everything.
posted by Nomyte at 8:24 AM on December 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

If a friend of mine suddenly opened up and admitted to me that they'd been lying because of insecurity and fear, I would want to help them. I would not hate them. I would feel touched that they trusted me enough to reveal their true self.
posted by orme at 8:24 AM on December 25, 2012 [10 favorites]

I totally understand this impulse, and the fear of admitting you lied. I do think everyone does this to a small extent. We all want to seem brilliant, and talented, and interesting to others, and we all tend to feel that we don't measure up. Remembering that might help you; your insecurities are not unique. You may have let them go further than some people, but again, others have too.

And now you have enough maturity and perspective to realize: you don't want to do this anymore. That shows real growth! It is a positive thing.

I second the recommendations for therapy, and also, picking one person to confess it to, that you trust. Explain it like you have to us; a bad habit born out of trauma and confusion as a kid, and insecurity, but a habit you want to break. Tell them the real truth about whatever you lied about; you didn't finish school, didn't hold X job, whatever it is. Tell them the whole story; you tried to do X, but couldn't, or Y situation happened.

If they are a good friend, they will not reject you for this. They will sympathize with your pain, and want to help you. If your friend came to you with this trouble, would you reject them? You wouldn't, right?

Best of luck, and don't lose your courage. You're doing the right thing, and you will feel so much better once you move forward in your life.
posted by emjaybee at 8:35 AM on December 25, 2012

The people that you hang out with probably already know that you lie. I've had a few chronic liars in my friend circle before, and it became pretty clear that they weren't telling the truth, even to people I introduced them to for the first time. So, it probably won't be all that much of a shock when you "come out" to them.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 8:41 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

[OP, a user let us know that your email address seems to be misspelled. Could you check it and get back to us pls? Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:12 AM on December 25, 2012

I'm getting the feeling, like Nomyte, that these are relatively benign "social lies". I think it makes a big difference if you are hurting other people with these lies (like if they are making financial decisions based on the fact that they think you finished school), or if you are just trying to satisfy their expectations and they feel good about something you haven't done.

You should definitely stop lying, but how to unwind your current position and undo the lies you've told is a trickier business. Tell a trusted person, friend or family, and ask their thoughts on what you should do. It depends a lot on what the lies are, and how they affect other people.

I suggest that you take steps to finish school (if that is what you want) and achieve the other things that you have said you've done (if you want to).
posted by 3491again at 10:10 AM on December 25, 2012

There is a good chance that people you know already know you're lying. This actually gives you a certain advantage -- if you're someone who is generally seen as truthful, admitting to a lie can be very painful, because you don't want to undermine people's faith in you. Bit if you're a chronic liar, and people already know this, instead of undermining their sense of you, coming clean will actually allow you to start anew.

I would start with one person who you know very well and feel very close to; somebody whose relationship you feel is secure. And I would say to them what you said here -- that you have lied to cover insecurities, and you don't want to do it anymore. Let them know that you are going to try to be forthright with them from here on out, and, if you backslide, you will come clean, and you're looking for somebody who you feel comfortable doing that with.

Your friend will probably be very glad to help you. And you can practice truthfulness with them, and get into the habit of just telling the truth about things, and you'll see that people are perfectly okay with the truth. And once you start telling the truth, it tends to reenforce itself -- it becomes hard to lie to somebody about something that you have told the truth to somebody else to.

You're going to quickly discover that telling the truth is a lot easier than lying, because there's much less to remember.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:18 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have much issues with lying, but I study psychology as a hobby, and my experience suggests that the best way to be forgiven for something is to show genuine emotional pain and vulnerability.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:32 AM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

[email update is now correct]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:13 AM on December 25, 2012

I know you know this, but somehow, you need to find a way to stop doing this. My first husband lied to me about most of his past (between when we lost contact after high school and when we met up about nine years later). After he died, I found out the real story. It was nothing horrible, just basically what you're describing above. Almost all of us had graduated from college after we left high school. Almost all of us had good jobs, etc. He hadn't done either of those yet and didn't want to be seen as a "loser" I guess, not that any of us would have thought that. It sucks when someone you love dies and you find out a lot of what they told you was a lie.
posted by moosedogtoo at 11:47 AM on December 25, 2012

In my experience, people who lie as you describe (modest/believable claims) are primarily lazy. They want the sense of accomplishment and social goodwill that comes from hard work and overcoming mundane obstacles, but don't want to actually commit themselves to doing what it takes. So they "lie" and enjoy taking the dividend without actually making the investment. That is my assessment. File it away with all of the other opinions and interpretations because it is equally valid.

Now, assuming you want to change, how do you go about it? I think you simply roll up your sleeves and start doing the things you have already claimed to do. If you told people about how well your fictitious 401(k) is performing -- actually start a 401(k) and set it up like you already said how it was. If you told people you have run a marathon, then sign up for a marathon and do the training and actually finish it. If you claim to have read the complete works of Shakespeare, then go to the library and start grinding through them. If you claimed to have a BS in Chemistry, then enroll in night classes and finish it off.

But in the meantime, stop making new claims. Work quietly in the background and finish what you have already said you have done. Begging forgiveness is the cheap way out. It is only changing the focus from your false claims to your false regrets -- still manipulating people to react in a way that you want. The genuine path forward is to make your actual life a close representation of who you have wanted to be. At that point, your interactions with others will take care of themselves.
posted by 99percentfake at 11:55 AM on December 25, 2012

Stop lying. That's step one.

Okay, now there's retracting and making amends for your past lies. And this may be a high-stakes task for you, particularly if you've gotten your current job on the basis of falsified or misstated credentials. If that is the case, it'll be really hard to come clean to your friends and acquaintances while leaving that unresolved, so be aware of that.

But. Even if you can't address this right now--admitting fraud to an employer in the current job market is a huge step--you can stop lying from this moment on. Maybe you need to wear a silicon wristband (a la the "Livestrong" bracelets, oh dramatic irony!) that says "Truth" to remind you. And as you get into the practice of telling the truth, my guess is that you'll feel increasingly driven to rectify your false position.

If the lying doesn't include your professional life, agree with everyone who says "Start by telling one person". I would start with the person you think may be skeptical of your stories.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:01 PM on December 25, 2012

Please be careful if you decide to pick one person to come clean to.

If you open up to someone but forbid her or him to tell anyone else, you are in a sense making your confidant complicit in your lies.

Unless you quickly take action to change and to demonstrate that change, you will be placing an inappropriate burden on that person and are likely to alienate him or her.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 12:52 PM on December 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

People will forgive you. Let me tell you my story.

I was lied to by my best friend in college. She lied about aspects of her past to make herself look better to me (and to others). She made up a wealthy boyfriend and an exciting back story from high school where he was devoted to her, etc etc and she controlled him with her charisma and sexual power. She said she ran with a rich and druggie crowd but she maintained her independence and a 4.0 GPA and left a likely future of marriage and wealth to go to school. I believed that she was strong and intelligent and charismatic and capable of being the center of an exciting social circle.

Years later she confessed to me. After college, she fell in love with and married a wonderful man whose honesty inspired her to come clean about herself. She reached out to me and told me that what she told me about herself was "all lies." At first I was shocked. Then I felt a rush of compassion for her. I saw that her stories were too good to be true -- that perhaps she was not the intriguing person who could attract the kind of people she claimed orbited her. Then I felt stupid. How could I have believed these things? What else had she lied to me about? Was anything that she had ever told me about herself true?

It took a while but it turned out that my second reaction -- compassion -- was the one real feeling for me. Yes, I was naive to believe her, but I *wanted* to believe her. I understood her impulse to lie and make herself look better, because we all feel that way. I can't condemn her for being young and insecure, no more than I could condemn myself.

For me, what mattered was that she faced up to it. She came to me and confessed all. And I didn't want to hear every sordid corner of it. To this day I don't know how much she lied about to me. And I don't care. I believe my friendship with her is honest. There are more important things in life than how we deal with insecurity. You already know you need to move past this. Do it. You will have friends from this period of your life who will understand what you have gone through. Figure out who they are. And you will make friends in the future who understand and embrace you as you live your honest life. It will be okay. I wish you the best.
posted by woot at 7:35 PM on December 25, 2012

I suggest you don't start at the bottom of the mountain you've made, trying to undo the very first layer by confessing all your lies to all your friends and begging forgiveness. First of all, it's too intimidating and scary to do. Second of all, they most likely do not actually care that much. I know that seems weird but there is likely a couple things at play: we are all to some extent narcissists at heart. We think other people pay attention to our outfits and notice if we wear them more than once. We think people are judging us at the gym. The only time you really get that kind of hyper awareness is in high school which is a peak time of narcissism and low self-esteem. FOR EVERYONE. In truth, most people barely look around them and don't have time to analyze you for flaws.

I think your lying is actually rooted in your childhood and those narcissistic and fearful feelings and now that you're maturing, you're realizing that you can actually let go of that. For whatever reason, it's taken you a bit longer but that's okay. Forgive yourself.

I suggest that instead of trying to move the mountain of guilt you start with the grain of sand on top: stop lying today. If someone new asks: where'd you go to school? You can say X University. If they say, when did you graduate? You can say, "that's a long story" then change the subject. If you don't want to talk about college, then don't. You don't have to say anything about yourself. And, in fact, it's going to be good practice for you to stop telling stories about yourself and listen to stories that other people have to share.

The other factor here is, sadly, people probably already know that you're lying to them. Maybe they don't really think about it too hard but they have a sense that something is fishy. But what they don't want is a big confession, they just don't want to be lied to. So stop talking. When you feel a lie coming on, stop talking. Ask questions. Refresh your drink. Go to the bathroom and regroup. You'll need to practice this.

I have a relative who I adore who, sadly, lies constantly. It's all about embellishment, exaggeration, trying to make people laugh. But, I see through it much of the time. This person is not a very good liar, actually. I know; I was a really good liar. I lied to evade, because of abusers in my life. But something happened when I went to college and I decided I would never lie again. I've pretty much stuck to that.

If there's someone in your life that you've hurt with your lying, you may need to make specific amends. However, start with just not lying. And start with making steps to BE the person you want to be. Lying is just keeping a buffer between you and your friends, your family. You are keeping them at arm's length, not knowing the real you and not having any particular reason to trust you. Do you trust anyone? Do you want to be trusted? Think about that.

Best of luck. Don't try to move the mountain. Start simply.
posted by amanda at 8:05 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with starting small. If you've been lying for a long time, well any habit is difficult to break. I suggest using the same approach that people suggest to shy people who want to learn to feel comfortable talking to others. So start out by having small, true conversations with people that you are not emotionally invested in - the retail clerk, the drycleaner, the waiter/waitress... Anyone who seems chatty. Take the example of running a marathon... If someone mentions the nice weather you could say "oh I always promise myself that I will go running on nice days, but I just don't seem to make it out of bed at a decent hour". Begin with small, inconsequential truths, until that becomes a habit, and then build from there.
posted by vignettist at 10:18 PM on December 25, 2012

This lying is about shame. You lie because you're ashamed of yourself, of what you see as your inadequacies. But it's not about the content of the lies, really. Because now you're ashamed that you lie.

Try to realize that nobody but you is as critical of you, including your lies, as you are. Your horror at what people might think is a "projection" of your own feelings about yourself.

It's the shame that needs to be addressed. That you don't think who you are is "good enough."

posted by DMelanogaster at 6:23 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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