help me deal with a compulsive liar
May 3, 2021 3:31 PM   Subscribe

My dad is a compulsive liar. Some of what he lies about is silly, some not so much. After dealing with this for 30+ years I'm reaching a breaking point. It's basically death by a thousand cuts. Help me figure out how to not get so riled up about this.

This might sound petty, but it's related to an ongoing problem with my father and I'm not sure how best to address it. I'm going to start with the most immediate example and go from there.

I recently started pursuing commercial voiceover work, and after extensive work with a vocal coach, recorded a demo in a professional recording studio that specializes in VO production. My demo consists of five short "spots" reflecting different companies/industries to show range. The recording process involved me doing multiple takes of each piece of copy, with me, my coach, and the engineer deciding which take was the best (and sometimes combining multiple takes). After that, the engineer took about ten days to edit the demo, order the spots in a sequence that flowed well, and added music and sound effects. It came out beautifully, and I'm really proud of it and grateful to my coach and the engineer. I've posted the demo on all of my social media channels, as my coach suggested.

My dad lives across the country, and he, his longtime girlfriend, and her two sons and their respective spouses just did a Zoom birthday party for his girlfriend. (For simplicity's sake, I will refer to her as my stepmother, as that is how I think of her, and her sons as my stepbrothers.) My older stepbrother said that he really liked my voiceover demo and was impressed by my ability to "move seamlessly from one voice to the next without stopping" and my dad passed this info on to me.

That's obviously not how the process worked - the demo is not one long take of me doing every spot back-to-back, it's comprised of five separated takes of five spots (maybe more if they spliced multiple takes together for one spot). The professionalism of the final product has just as much to do with the skill of the engineer as it does my ability to read advertising copy. Obviously, people not familiar with recording VO wouldn't necessarily know this, so I told my dad to convey my thanks to my stepbrother but also explained my feelings about the significance of the engineer's role in the final product, and my dad's response, literally, was "Who cares?!"

I care. I am a musician and have spent tons of time in recording studios. I have an album coming out in the next few months in collaboration with a producer/engineer, and my longtime music partner is, addition to being a guitar player, also a recording engineer. I feel that engineers are unsung heroes in the recording industry, and it's important to me that I acknowledge that the reason why anyone thinks I sing well or deliver VO copy well is largely because I have had to good fortune to work with talented engineers. I explained that to my dad (using less words - basically I said that I feel it is disrespectful to take full credit for a professional VO demo sounding professional without acknowledging the significant contribution of the engineer - not to mention the time I spent with my vocal coach). Again, my dad said "Who cares?! [Stepbrother] was impressed by you, so you should just take credit for the whole thing!

This irritated me.

I recognize this is a dumb thing to be irritated about. I could let this go. I've let many, many things like this go with my dad in the past, such as:

- Lying to people about what I do for a living in front of me, getting mad when I don't play along with the charade, and telling me "it doesn't matter" when I call him out

- Telling people I handled my mother's cancer and death so well at the age of 12 that I didn't need counseling (actually. I have C-PTSD because of this and it wasn't diagnosed until I was 33 years old so I developed a lot of maladaptive coping mechanisms to stress and interpersonal relationships that have had a significant impact on my quality of life)

- Saying that if I told anyone I have bipolar disorder (I do, diagnosed when I was 20, runs on both sides of my family) he would deny it if asked directly

- Lying to me, my stepbrothers, his family, and most of his friends about whether or not his relationship with my stepmother was or wasn't platonic - stepbrothers and I got confirmation only after they'd been together for 7 years, his family still doesn't know, and he says if I tell anyone he will disown me. (My stepmother is cool so I don't understand the need for secrecy, and honestly them playing coy about this topic has made them much more of a topic of extended family and friend gossip than they would be if they just owned up to it. My stepbrothers and I are both confused about this.)

- Lying to people that I had a 4.0 GPA in college (I didn't, my bipolar symptoms were coming to a head and my academic performance was erratic, A's and B's in some subjects and mostly C's the rest of the time, one D, and outright failed three classes my freshman year which resulted in my being put on academic probation. I managed to graduate on time in spite of all of this because I sought treatment for my mental illness (my dad did not support me) and I'm proud of that, but if I tell anyone and it gets back to him, he will deny it).

- Lying to everyone that the reason why I was put on academic probation had to do with my PCOS diagnosis and not mental illness. I'd been diagnosed with PCOS years before and this excuse made no sense because no one gets thrown out of school for a semester because of PCOS.

- Making sure that everyone knew that the reason why I'm fat is because I have PCOS, which included graphic descriptions of some of the more embarrassing side effects of PCOS (this isn't a lie so much as TMI to ensure that everyone knew that I was fat because of a disease and not because he had somehow failed to parent me properly - he believed and still believes that my weight reflects poorly on him)

- Lying to people that in my first job out of college I was on the hiring committee for my boss (no, my boss hired me, also this is ludicrous, why would a 22 year old art student who was a temp be involved in the hiring process for a director of finance?)

- Lying (along with his older sister and brother, and their kids) that their younger sister passed away in January not due to COVID-19 but due to a heart attack, despite the medical examiner declaring her cause of death to be "cardio-respiratory failure due to untreated COVID-19" like it bloody SAYS SO on the ME's report but the three of them have decided lying is the way to go and when I asked my dad why there is a giant family conspiracy to conceal the cause of death my dad said "Who cares, it doesn't matter." My aunt who passed lived in India where there has been a recent surge of COVID cases. I think it does matter.

- Lying that my boyfriend went to a fancier college than he actually did. (I went to a Fancy Pants Name Brand SLAC in a Very Liberal Part of the Northeast and it has done NOTHING for me in terms of my career/networking/whatever; my boyfriend went to Mid-Tier State School in Vaguely Backwater City in Vaguely Redneck State and up until COVID he had a spectacular career, outearned me nearly threefold, and actually got a better, more well-rounded education than I did in college because he was motivated to get his ass out of Vaguely Redneck State whereas I slogged through college just trying to graduate on time without falling into a major depressive hole because the thought of being in college for more than four years filled me with existential dread and anxiety

Basically, my dad lies about anything, from the superficial to the rather quite serious. He's a compulsive liar. If there is an opportunity to lie, he will take it. I suspect he takes credit for other people's work at work. He claims that my late mother's writing skills were so incoherent that he had to basically write all of her law school papers for her while she dictated her thoughts to him and so he feels he should get to say he has a law degree and also that he was smarter than her (Morgan Freeman's voice: he wasn't). My godmother (who went to law school with my mom) has confirmed that this is a BIG FAT LIE and the only trouble my mother ever ran into was spelling issues due to undiagnosed dyslexia. She ended up with an immensely successful career and was a partner at a massive, prestigious law firm before her cancer diagnosis; her paralegals proofread anything she wrote to ensure it was spelled correctly (this was pre-spell check)

My dad lies CONSTANTLY and if the lie is self-glorifying, he will lean into the lie further. Worst of all, he wants me to lie about myself too, and when I'm not around, lies on my behalf, which leads to embarrassing situations when I talk to someone who has been told a lie about me and I am unaware of said lie until that moment and then have to set the record straight or somehow change the topic.

I am fucking sick of this. The VO demo thing is a stupid thing to be this angry about. I get it. But at the same time, it is a small example of a larger pattern of my dad being a lying liar who lies, and after 30+ years of this I cannot take it anymore.

My dad is the kind of person who takes boundary-setting or any critical feedback of his behavior as a personal attack akin to a physical assault, so confronting him about this is useless and just leads to High Drama. I don't want to go no-contact; I don't think this stuff merits that drastic a response, and I would miss my stepfamily tremendously if I did that. He is also my only living parent, and I would like to try to have some sort of relationship with him, though I am disappointed that the relationship we have isn't based in any sense of authenticity. His lies about me in particular make me feel like he's not actually proud of my actual achievements and instead they need embellishment in order to be truly worth being proud of. Worst of all, he believes his own lies. When caught in a lie, he will say it doesn't matter, or get very defensive, or very angry.

How can I reframe this situation so that when I see/hear/experience him lying (outright or by ommission) about me or about things that are important to me or about things in general I don't get this riled up? This is super stressful for me and I know I can't change him so I need to adjust my own attitude. There's something so depressing about just declaring "oh, my dad is a compulsive liar, whatevs", though. My boyfriend and my godsister both believe that my dad is somewhere on the narcissistic personality spectrum but I'm not sure, and obviously we can't know without some sort of psychological assessment, which won't happen because he doesn't believe in therapy. This is not old age-related behavior or a sudden change that should be investigated by a doctor; he has been compulsively lying for over 30 years (see example from my mom in law school).

Any thoughts welcome. And yes, to reiterate yet again, I get that being this angry about the VO demo is dumb - that was just the most recent example of a frustrating pattern, so I would appreciate not being scolded for being angry about something dumb; I want to know how to not get so angry in these situations in general when my dad is not going to change.

I should perhaps add that when I was a child my father was emotionally abusive towards me and my mother, and this continued after her death. He used to break household objects and punch walls. He never hit me or my mom, but when he was angry this is how it would manifest. When asked why he broke [thing] his response was "because I needed to get your attention". He doesn't do this anymore (things vastly improved when I moved 3000 miles away and also my stepmother does not put up with this shit) but it is perhaps pertinent in understanding why he gets under my skin; I do not feel emotionally safe around him.
posted by nayantara to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I go with the closed clam theory. A closed clam has no buttons to push. Time to divorce your dad from the inner processes that you use to be happy. Don't report to him about anytbing. If you think this will get better as he ages, think again. Build an effective blanket fort around your heart. Don't respond when he passes on messages from others. Don't let him hurt you. Narcissism is hard to endure if you have emotional needs tied to that person. Make a point of compartmenting with your siblings and never talk about him, without mentioning you are doing that. Realize that texts coming from siblings may be from him if he snagged a phone lying around the house. Never immediately answer texts that seem uncharacteristic. Anyway. Life is unnecessarily difficult in what should be easy passages.
posted by Oyéah at 3:43 PM on May 3, 2021 [11 favorites]

I give you permission to not speak to your father. You don't need it, but I dunno, sometimes maybe it's helpful to hear that you can just... not talk to him.

If removing yourself from the situation completely (aka avoiding him) isn't possible, I've found value in learning more about Stoicism as a way to let other people's actions and judgements wash right past me. Specifically Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

or more simply two thoughts

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

Very cool about the demo, by the way. I hope things go well.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:48 PM on May 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe it's not solely the lying? Maybe what's really upsetting you is that your father doesn't seem to think you're good enough just as you are. He has to embellish your accomplishments, or invent more "acceptable" reasons that you did x or y. That's really hurtful.

Have you thought about taking a break from communicating with your father? You can't control what he says about you to others, but you can control hearing about it afterwards, or getting into fruitless arguments with him about it.
posted by Stoof at 3:56 PM on May 3, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I wonder if it would help to reframe his behavior as about being about him, not you.
Your dad lies because he doesn't trust that telling the truth will get him the respect and attention that he wants. He tells lies about you because you are his daughter and his lies are a version of reality that reflect better on him (in his mind) than the truth. (He's wrong, very wrong about this but in his mind it is better to the father of whatever puffed up version he is creating than to be the proud and loving father of the real and accomplished person that you are.)

My guess is that the lies about you hurt the most because it means that he isn't seeing you for who you really are and, in fact, is sending you the message that he would love you better if you were that puffed up version that he likes to present. (Although even if you were, he would probably still be lying and exaggerating about you to feel better about himself).

If this makes sense, then the trick to accept the grief that he will never be the loving father that you deserve and to let go of being surprised when he prioritizes his need to feel important over having a genuine relationship with the real you. That's hard stuff emotionally. Sometimes it works best not to give him any information about you so he won't get it wrong - although I would guess he would still be making lies. Sometimes you just get to the point where you tell yourself "That's Dad being Dad. I can't change it but I shouldn't be surprised and I don't have to let it hurt me." But it still sucks - I hope there are plenty of others in your life who have the emotional depth to be in genuine relationship with the real you, you sound like an awesome person.
posted by metahawk at 3:59 PM on May 3, 2021 [13 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds like my dad, who was an absolutely charming, much-loved narcissistic alcoholic. If either of those things applies you might want to look into it because there are specific coping mechanisms that can help you.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:03 PM on May 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Stop Caretaking The Borderline or Narcissist was really eye opening for me.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 4:14 PM on May 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: DarlingBri: he is insanely charming to those who don't know him; my school friends all adored him and ask after him constantly when we talk. He also drinks a lot of wine. A lot. He starts drinking at 11am (he has WFH for years). So yeah... I think I need to look into that. Any suggestions?
posted by nayantara at 4:15 PM on May 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You know who he is. Expecting him to be any different than that is an unreasonable expectation that only affects you - he doesn't care. It's like expecting a cat to be a dog, you can want and hope for and wish for a dog all day but it's Fancy Feast you have to put in the bowl every morning and night.

Yes of course there are consequences to you for his lies, and of course his lies feel like criticism that you are never enough as you are. That sucks and it hurts, but you kind of need to stare directly at the lies to see that it's not actually you. It's HIM. This is his reality he's inventing, and all these lies are meant to convince the world that HE has value - the most value, all the value, as many value as he can scrape together and hold up as evidence. And he's got so little he has to make up orbiting value to claim as his own.

I do think you should look into narcissist recovery materials, because whether he's exactly that or not isn't something any of us can say for sure, but generally when someone is lying at that level they don't really think of you being a fully distinct individual from them. You're just a lever they can manipulate to make more value. There are books for adult children of narcissists, and I believe the subreddit RaisedByNarcissists maintains pretty fresh resource lists. (They have a number of offshoot subs too, you may find one even closer to what you generally experience.) You would probably find a lot of enlightenment at AlAnon (and even the Alateen materials can be really liberating for someone who went through this as a teen but is older now), because they are all about learning to stop trying to control things beyond your reach.

In a perfect world he would suddenly see the light and do the right thing. That would be great. You need to operate on a day to day basis, though, like that's not going to happen. He isn't this way because of you, he's this way because something is wrong with him, and you happen to exist on the same plane. You don't have any correlation to making him not this way.

Ultimately that means you need to expect the lie. Be mindful of what material you give him to work with, know he's going to distort if you do or make things up out of whole cloth if you don't. Just assume people are being told a bunch of bullshit, and you will be less surprised when that turns out to be the case. If you want to have a relationship with him, you have to accept him on his terms, because there's nothing else you can do. Your only instrument here is boundaries, and you can't have boundaries that he won't act X or Y way, that's not how that works.

That said, I'll tell you that most people either already know he's a compulsive liar - almost all of them have a tell, and over time people just get the vibe - or they don't give a flying fuck where your boyfriend went to college because most people don't. It is trivia at best. Yes, charm goes a long way, but I'll bet anybody who has to spend a lot of time with him sees through it.

But it is okay to tell your friends, when they ask after him, that actually he's super problematic. If someone comes directly to you with one of his lies, you can say it's not true if it's something you actually need to correct. It's in your OWN life that you absolutely get to say that you deserve (and deserved, pretty much always) better, and you do get to go to therapy and talk about how you process this for your own narrative and healing and boundary-building.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:26 PM on May 3, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: If you can’t cut him off, if you can’t stop speaking to him, if you have to hear the endless damn lies he tells to you and about you, heck, lean into it. Turn it into a game, the joke that it is. Take the sting out of it. Say to him or anyone who brings it up

“Yes, and after I hired the Director of Finance, straight out of college at 22, I singlehandedly solved climate change, world peace, and manned the first solo mission to Jupiter!”

One up him in outrageous things that you’ve done. Is it silly? Absolutely. Make light of it in whatever way it takes for you to highlight the ridiculousness of this and when he realises you’re not supporting his lies , maybe he’ll stop. And if he doesn’t stop, you can just roll your eyes at him and say, yep, there he goes again. Because he’ll never change so you have to change how you feel about it. It’s just Dad being Dad! Did you hear about the time I cured covid?
posted by Jubey at 5:08 PM on May 3, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed with the armchair person with NPD diagnosis here. The book “why is it always about you” was the one my family therapist recommended- it’s worth a read.

I think it’s complicated but the first thing is to understand that your dad is himself and his lying is about himself. When he lies about you, sure, you can correct him may not be worth it.

My dark humour strategy is to get worse, like one does with a child. Like this:

“You had full scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, and Brown!”

“And I’m sure I’d’ve been a Rhodes Scholar, maybe an astronaut, if that were really true, it was a partial scholarship to Princeton and a legacy admit to Brown which is why I failed out of a lesser known Canadian Maritime school! I do regret not getting to start Facebook though.” It won’t solve any problems but might make you feel better.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:23 PM on May 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the input, everyone. The answers about one-upping his lies about me gave me a good chuckle and I may go that route just so I can be entertained rather than enraged.

Those of you who pointed out that the lies about me hurt so much because he's not interested in the real me but a fantasy me that he creates that is impressive (to him) - thank you for that. I kind of knew this but didn't know how to put it into words. It reminds me of an anecdote from my immediate post-college years (when I accidentally fell into an accounting career to pay the bills after a fairly useless BA in art) - not a lie, but a really strange conversation we had, when my stepbrother, who was pre-law in college and intending to go to law school after taking a year or two off, landed an internship at the UN through an old connection of his late father's (my stepmother was married to a diplomat - funny that, because my mother was the daughter of a diplomat, maybe my dad has a type; anyway). My dad was weirdly morose about this, which was puzzling because I was quite happy for my stepbrother. When I asked my dad why he was sulking, he said "I feel bad that I don't have any connections that could get you an internship at the UN."

Friends, while the UN is pretty swell, I admit, there is nothing at all about a job at the UN that appeals to me, nor is there anything in my academic background that would qualify me for such a thing, connections or no connections. I remember being pretty shocked when he said that - it was so clear that he didn't know me at all, my personality, my temperament, my interests, what motivates me. Nothing. I lived in his house for 19 years and he didn't seem to know me at all.

Another thing this reminds me of is, he's a really good writer - his sisters both thought he was heading towards a career in journalism, but he took a pretty big swerve in his 30s after getting his PhD, went to business school, and now works in corporate finance, which was puzzling to his family. I am a contributing writer to a local arts publication and I write primarily about film and television. My dad read one of my pieces about a year ago and sent me a one line text: "Nayantara, you are a better writer than I ever was because you are more capable of independent thought than I am." It was a surprise compliment - I don't really get many of those from him - but it also made me feel deeply sad for him. It seemed to be a very self-aware statement that was also a terrible indictment of the way he operates in life. I think this is why I can't bring myself to cut him off, even though he infuriates me - in that moment, I could feel how inadequate he must feel constantly, and because I have my own battles with self-hatred I can't turn off the empathy switch for him, though he doesn't seem to have any empathy for me.

At any rate you have all given me a lot of food for thought, and thank you all for the resources/books/subreddit recommendations. I'm definitely going to look into resources about how to cope with a narcissistic parent; it seems like that is a reasonable place to start. And the tips for reframing are super helpful too. Thank you all for that as well. This place really is the best sometimes.
posted by nayantara at 6:43 PM on May 3, 2021 [14 favorites]

The VO demo thing sounds more like your Dad being controlling.
Lying about a family member's mental health diagnosis is a sign of shame.
He lies about your occupation, is that to make you look more 'extra'?
He lies to self-glorify, takes credit.

Does your Dad have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? It's difficult to live with, maybe do some reading. Definitely take whatever good he has to offer, do not participate in lies. It may help to do the Reaganesque response of eyeroll and There you go again. You anger is real and reasonable, but he almost certainly doesn't want to recognize or change his behavior, and learning to manage your responses, develop some teflon skin, and push back sometimes, are good things. A therapist would help. You have years of justifiable frustration and anger, and spilling it to a listener is a good idea.
posted by theora55 at 7:19 AM on May 4, 2021

You might like Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley. Mum was a liar. Pup was the famous William F Buckley. I'm not suggesting that it would be therapeutic, though. The "problems of the upper class" aspect is somewhat interesting.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:00 PM on May 4, 2021

Cutting off your dad doesn’t mean you have to cut him off forever. At 48-ish I told my mom I wasn’t going to talk/email/text with her for a little while because I had to “figure out some stuff.”

My issue with her was that I could never get her voice out of my head; in the process of every decision I made I heard her “advice” about what I should or shouldn’t do. For a few months I had no contact with her and her voice faded and mine took over.

When we met again we were happy to see each other but I had also gained confidence and told her that I’d been listening to her voice and not my own for my entire life and was switching to my own. Our relationship has improved 1000%.

This isn’t a complete answer to your question but I wanted to share my perspective on “cutting off” a parent.

Even if you and your dad don’t have the emotional conversations my mom and I have had, even ignoring him for a month or two can free your mind up so much.
posted by bendy at 10:15 PM on May 4, 2021

To plug (again) Stop Caretaking The Borderline or Narcissist -- I find that a lot of online groups for dealing with people with NPD are centered around support and reality-checking (e.g. "they said I'm a bad kid, true?" and similar). They also tend to talk about the worst forms of these disorders and, reasonably, tend to be focused on cutting people off. While that's often the best advice, these kinds of groups can be light on the ground in terms of actual practical advice for dealing with someone with these issues. That is, once you've acknowledged that it's their issue and you have a healthy sense of perspective (which it sounds like you do), they're just a bit less useful than one might like.

Stop Caretaking... is kind of the next step once you get what's going on and want to figure out what's next -- it is both compassionate towards the person with NPD (without justifying!) and is extremely practical about the fact that you might want to continue in a relationship -- and if so, here's how to do it, here's how to maintain your mental health, here's how to deal with practical situations that come up, etc. I got a lot out of it despite having been immersed in this kind of thing for 15+ years since realizing that I had an NPD parent. I really, really recommend it.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 11:41 AM on May 5, 2021

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