How do I help a delusional/pathologically lying friend?
April 15, 2006 10:26 AM   Subscribe

Should we confront a good friend who is either completely delusional or a pathological liar?

In my circle of friends, there's one guy, we'll call him Will, who is CONSTANTLY making up completely insane stories. He'll tell anyone who asks or doesn't ask that he's a freelance illustrator/cartoonist who has had work published in everything from Playboy to Fangoria. He doesn't keep the magazines he's been published in because he doesn't want his "commercial" work to influence his "artistic" work- an animated series that he's shopping around to HBO, the Sci-Fi network, and The Cartoon Network. He's constantly talking about flying to New York to "take meetings". When I pointed out that The Cartoon Network is headquartered in Atlanta, he told me that the head of programming flies to meet him in New York. He had a fiancee in New York when he lived there a few years back (a young Japanese woman who loved comics, of course) who either died in a car wreck or 9-11, the story changes pretty often. No one believes any of this, obviously, but my friends and I love him anyway and have overlooked this insanity for a while. The problem now is that the lies are getting much more frequent and more disturbing. What started as delusions of success and fame and tragic love have turned into "my (made-up) animation partner committed suicide two days ago" and "my mom has cancer" and that kind of thing. I guess my question really isn't DO we confront him, but HOW? In a group? Get one person to do it? Does anyone have experience with a situation like this? He's a really emotional, sensitive guy and I guess the biggest fear is that he'll flip out and try to hurt himself. What's the best way to keep that from happening? (I know his mom, his only family, and while she doesn't appear to have cancer, she IS crazy as crap and will be no help at all in this situation)
posted by cilantro to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you want to confront him, I think one person should do it. Confronting him as a group would shame him more than necessary.
posted by jayder at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2006

what do you think will happen when you do confront him? you really expect that's going to "cure" him? or do you just want to hurt him because he's annoying you?

i really don't see the connection between confronting him and helping him.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2006

I agree with the cookester*

Either accept his stories as free entertainment (like you would with any great story/joke teller) or stop listening and let him figure out why his friends don't pay attention to his lies on his own.

I have a friend or two who have ever-changing stories, and seem to remember the reality of situations very differently from the rest of the people who were there, but I dont mind too much. He's a very good friend and has a lot of redeeming qualities.

Why is everyone always so hopped up on interventions anyway? Let the man be until his stories start hurting people.
posted by kevin_2864212 at 10:37 AM on April 15, 2006

People like this never change. It's better to just cut them off and stop giving them attention.
posted by cellphone at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: Maybe start by simply asking what's going on in his life? After he goes through his song and dance about the suicide/cancer bit, perhaps he'll touch on the underlying issues a bit more, at least enough to bring up what you really want to discuss - the lying.

I expect he'll start with denial, denial, denial. He'll get mad at you for even suggesting his stories are not true. He'll try to deflect the topic at hand. What's worked for me (yes, I have dealt with someone like this) is to be able to offer proof he cannot get away from.

I think you need to make sure you let him know you don't like him less, don't respect him less, and don't think badly of him because of this. Make him, if you can, feel secure enough that perhaps he can see this as a point where he can unload and take actions to change...not a event that makes him run away from you and his problems. However, remember you can't force him to face up to the truth if he doesn't want to. You can only make it easier for him.

Good luck. it won't be easy.
posted by Windigo at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2006

I agree with jayder - confronting him as a group would be brutal for the guy. Maybe though, you could agree with your group of friends to all have individual talks with him over a period of a couple of days. You should, however, treat this as an intervention as your friend has a serious problem. Some kind of counseling with a professional should be set up for him, don't just tell him you're fed up/concerned and leave him hanging. This is especially important if you think he may hurt himself after speaking to him. Or better yet, consult with a professional first?
posted by meerkatty at 10:39 AM on April 15, 2006

Response by poster: andrew cooke-I don't KNOW what's going to happen when he's confronted. That's why I'm asking for advice or stories of related experiences. My friend-my CLOSE friend, whom I love- has what appears to be a serious mental problem. Everyone has overlooked it for a while but now he seems to be getting really depressed and his other friends and I are worried about him and want to help him. I think that confronting him about it is the only way to start.
posted by cilantro at 10:41 AM on April 15, 2006

i really don't see the connection between confronting him and helping him.

I don't think there is a connection unless his delusions are a part of a larger mental-health issue.
posted by docgonzo at 10:41 AM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: You could always make it clear indirectly, when he brings it up, by telling him that money, fame, and credentials are not important to you, and that you like him for personal reasons. Over a period of time he may discover he doesn't need to impress you. This could be the result of the way he was treated as a child. It may be difficult to change.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:44 AM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: maybe i misunderstood what "confronting" means, or misread the emphasis. in my experience there's not a lot you can do to get someone to seek help with mental problems unless you have a lot of emotional leverage and are prepared to really use it (and i'm not sure that's a decent thing to do anyway, both because it seems ethically dubious and because you end up with a "patient" who doesn't buy into the whole deal).

but sure, talk to them about it - one on one, as a friend, saying that you are concerned, and explaining why. i'm not sure i'd call that confrontation, but that's what i would do. although, again, in my limited experience, it won't produce an immediate change (although it might help contribute in some small way to, well, something).

i'm sorry if i seemed snarky. i've been there and i, pesonally, am no saint, and i know this drove me crazy, and drove everyone else crazy, but it still amazes me how quickly people drift from being concerned to deciding that they are the one chose to force someone else to do, well, whatever....
posted by andrew cooke at 10:52 AM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: I used to be like this myself. Not to the extent that your friend is, I don't think, but I was, frankly, a pathological liar. At least, that's my term for it; maybe it wasn't really pathological so much as habitual. I had a circle of close friends and I guess I just felt inadequate or boring or uncool, so I frequently made stuff up and told stories that weren't true. I suspect that this was relatively apparent to everyone concerned, but at the time I didn't think it was.

No one ever really confronted me about it. What ultimately got me to stop was meeting and dating a girl who got interested in me before I had time to bullshit about anything with her. I wanted to keep her around, and I had the presence of mind to realize that she already liked the "real" me. Even now though, six or so years later, it can still be tempting to embellish the truth a bit. Where I draw the distinction is between a minor improvement on a good story that doesn't have any bearing on me personally, and some outlandish tale that seeks to make me seem more interesting than I actually am.

I've since met a number of people who fit your friend's description, and it's always a little depressing. As happy as they might seem to you, what I know is that they basically have pretty big self-esteem problems, and lying is their way of trying to manage that. It doesn't really work though, because in the back of their mind they know that they're basically just a BS artist, probably worse of a person than they would be if they just behaved normally.

Now, if your friend is really delusional, and seems to truly believe the things he's telling you, you have a different problem alltogether. If he's really mentally out of it, he needs to see a doctor. Otherwise, if he's just a regular guy who's scared that people won't like him if he doesn't make his life sound exciting and interesting, I think it's 50/50 whether you can effect any change in him. My instinct would be to occasionally and gently, when you're not in front of a big group, call him out on some of his stories. Don't drag it on, just make it clear briefly that you know they aren't true. When he denies, just drop it and move on. If he's going to change at all, that sort of approach will probably work better over time than a serious sit-down uncomfortable talk.

Good luck.
posted by autojack at 11:22 AM on April 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

I vote that he's ill. Especially since you say his mom is nuts.

Does he talk really fast and/or loud sometimes? Does he stay up all night/need a lot less sleep than the rest of you?

Try to look at the whole picture, not just the compulsive lying.
posted by konolia at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: A caveat - I knew someone who had this kind of problem. He finally admitted it on his own, promised to get help/therapy. He just lied about the therapy, too.

Actually, way earlier I knew someone else with a similar problem - he seemed to have no control over it, the lies weren't very consistent and were just whatever caught his imagination at the time, and he looked mortified when he was (accidentally) reminded of lies he'd temporarily forgotten he told. He eventually stopped on his own, in a a situation very much like autojack described.

I'm not sure that intervention would be at all helpful, but maybe next time he tells one of the "my animator died/my house burned down/my pet frog has cancer" lies you could just suggest that with everything that's going on, he may really need some professional help and try to nudge him in that way.
posted by dilettante at 11:44 AM on April 15, 2006

I've known two people who made up fantastic stories about their lives like this.

One was the victim of a horrible sexual crime. The other had schizophrenia. In neither case can I imagine that a confrontation would have helped. Counseling, medication... maybe. "You're lying and we know it," from friends? Nope.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:45 AM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: There's some good advice here.

Before you start doing anything, it would be good to have a goal in mind. Your friend seems unhappy. Here are some goals: Do you want to make him happier? Do you want him to see a mental health professional? Or do you just want him to stop disturbing your group of friends with his erratic behavior?

Of these goals, you may be able to get him to see a mental health professional. That may be possible, if he is a horse who will drink after being led to water. If he doesn't want to go, it doesn't even matter whether he goes or not; it won't help.

If you just want him to stop being disruptive, confront him as a group and tell him so. This will be deeply embarrassing and uncomfortable for everyone, especially him. He'll probably stop showing his face around. You'll be quit of the problem; his own personal growth will take a giant leap backwards.

You want him to be happier? While I don't know much about your particular situation, I'm professionally familiar with similar situations, and I would only point out that it may not necessarily be within your power to make him happier or less nutty. Folks like this are crying out for closeness but are pushing people away with the other hand; it's hard to get in and give them the support they're asking for.

In fact, it's my opinion that calling out compulsive liars doesn't work the way that calling out depression or self-destructive behavior sometimes can. All of these neuroses are defense mechanisms; compulsive lying has a powerful built-in shield against the truth, in ways that other dysfunctional defenses don't. It's almost as if such a person can't hear you when you're talking sense to them.

I think if this were going on with someone I really cared about, I might throw him a surprise party. If they asked why, something like "seemed like you were a little down lately, going through a rough patch" would suffice. There would be little presents and other activities, maybe a cake, to make it clear that the party was about him and not just an excuse for the group to get together. No subtext, no verbal or nonverbal messages about the lying; just a little good old-fashioned unconditional love and support.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:47 AM on April 15, 2006 [3 favorites]

We had a good friend like this - he came up with bizarre stories about himself, and everyone knew they weren't true. You know, he went on to live a pretty decent life. Married, had kids. Oddly enough, he became a rocket scientist. No, really!

I never had the sense that he didn't know what the truth was, only that he didn't care for it. I don't know that any of us ever confronted him - or even considered it. It's just one of those quirks we remember and chuckle over.

Unless your friend is really delusional, let it go.
posted by clarkstonian at 12:14 PM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: I wonder if the point isn't really that you're tired of listening to his stories? Which I don't blame you for at all. My brother is a pathological (and very good) liar and none of the familiar can deal with him any more because of it. Over many years we've come to understand that basically nothing he says can be relied upon. All he's concerned about is the immediate effect he's having when he says it. Therefore, when confronted, he simply makes up more lies. It does absolutely no good at all. It's his way of coping with the world.

I agree with other posters that lying on this scale is very closely related to mental illness of one kind or another, whether it's treatable (schizophrenia) or not (borderline personality disorder). Your friend may well have a tenuous grip on reality and an 'intervention' is unlikely to have the effect you want.

If you do want to say something, I strongly suggest sitting him down over coffee and telling him as straight as you can that you're concerned about him. The problem is that as soon as you bring up the lying I absolutely guarantee he will become defensive/offended and begin to lie and at that point you will have lost any traction in actually dealing with the problem.

It is very frightening to be told by friends that you have a problem and need help, because it sends a very strong signal of rejection, since your friends are clearly no longer willing to accept you-as-you-are. It is quite likely to result in anger and denial, which is exactly the opposite of the effect you intend.

Sadly, the impetus to change something like this absolutely has to come from within. The best thing you can do is encourage the positive things (ie realistic expectations, real plans, real relationships) and make it clear that you just aren't interested in the bullshit. You can send those signals pretty clearly without an intervention in my opinion.
posted by unSane at 12:53 PM on April 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

by the way, unless you are willing to become your friend's full-time confidante, counsellor, buddy, guardian angel, psychiatrist, match-maker, drug-dealer, pimp, etc etc etc you need to remind yourself that in the end however much you care for him his happiness or otherwise is ultimately not your responsibility.
posted by unSane at 12:57 PM on April 15, 2006

Based on my experiences with another person who's exactly like this as well (the now-ex-husband of one of my best friends), I will say that unSane's advice is totally sane and wise, and I second everything he says.
posted by scody at 1:55 PM on April 15, 2006

Best answer: Your friend is mentally ill. If you knew he was physically ill, you would encourage him to see a doctor. He needs a doctor for this too.

Mental illness is WAY more difficult to have your friend confront. After all, you are asking a "sick" mind to diagnose itself, and take appropriate action.

You can't make him go. But maybe you can find a way to make things uncomfotable enough that you might even be able to take him to psychiatrist for evaluation. ("I talked to your mom, and she told me she doesn't have cancer. Why do you think you said she did?")

It's very tough. I know from firsthand experience. Maybe a local mental health professional can give you better advice.

A couple things to keep in mind:
-It's NOT your responsibility to make him well, or make him seek help. Just be freind and encourage him in the right direction. He has to do the work.
-Do not fall victim to emotional blackmail. Don't walk on eggshells, afraid that your actions might upset him. Gentleness is in order, but don't make yourself captive to his illness.
posted by The Deej at 2:36 PM on April 15, 2006

The Deej - don't you find it odd that you both encouraged someone to use emotional blackmail and warned them against it? Is the idea that it's OK when you want something, but not when others want something?
posted by andrew cooke at 2:45 PM on April 15, 2006

Just to note, two previous threads:

Compulsive lying questions -- March 10

Liar, Liar... PANTS ON FIRE! -- March 6
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:15 PM on April 15, 2006

Sorry, Andrew Cooke, I don't get what you mean.

In what way am I encouraging emotional blackmail? Do you mean my advice to "make things uncomfortable"? If so, that's not emotional blackmail. That is setting boundaries for your OWN behavior to not just overlook outrageous behavior on the part of others. Overlooking and laughing off bad behavior and lies, allows the mentally ill person to stay "comfortable" in his illness. Setting boundaries and confronting the problem will make the other person uncomfortable enough to hopefully seek help. No one changes when things are comfortable.

Emotional blackmail, in my definition, is something like "don't upset me or I will kill myself" as an extreme. You absolutely can NOT give in to such things. That is the danger in this kind of situation. Just going along so you don't upset the other person. This does no one any good. It encourages a cycle of bad behavior, followed by enabling of the the bad behavior.

As I said, this is from decades of (very) personal experience.

I'd be happy to clarify further if I still missed what you are getting at.
posted by The Deej at 4:20 PM on April 15, 2006

I haven't been in this situation, and this has probably already been done, so disregard as you please, but I would mention to the person (when alone) that sometimes he embellishes the truth, and that you like him more when he's not doing that. If he denies it, "I'm just sayin' - you're more fun when you're on the level" and drop the subject for the time being.

This is assuming he is a liar, not delusional. Basically just starting to give him some confidence that he impresses people more by being himself than by exagerrating himself.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:09 PM on April 15, 2006

Is he any different when you're alone with him or with a group of friends? I have a friend who has this need to embellish stories and make things up as she goes along - but it doesn't happen all the time. She's way "better" when on a one-on-one basis. I agree with the other posters that calling out the problem is not going to help. It will definitely make him feel like he is being rejected by all of you. If he's not so bad when he's in the company of one, then I say each pal make the effort to spend more quality time with him often. Maybe then you can all find a way to help him. good luck.
posted by Jujee at 11:50 AM on April 16, 2006

Best answer: I had a very close friend like this once. Ultimately our friendship ended due to his schizophrenia, which eventually grew much larger than the elaborate lies, into murderous threats and suicide attempts. I do not envy your situation.

I think in general the mental health industry in this country (USA) is loathsome. In my experience, hospitalization may initially seem to help while actually exacerbating the situation and teaching the [patient, victim, ??] how to "act" better, eg., tell better lies. Nevertheless, I would consult a psychiatrist personally about your situation; you never know what you might learn or realize.

IANAP and I feel a little hesitant on offering "advice" especially because I have such marginal information about your situation. You should think over it carefully and perhaps discuss with some of your other friends your course of action.

I would tell your friend that I knew he was lying. Immediately, forcefully, but compassionately. Of course he will try to deny it or change the topic. Tell him that you know he is lying and has been lying and that it is hurting your friendship. Tell him honestly how much you value the friendship. Tell him honestly how it hurts you when he lies to you and those around you. Do not threaten him. Just tell him adamantly that you will no longer acknowledge his lies. Do not tell him to stop lying. But do not continue to accept his lies. When he lies to you, tell him, "I know that you are lying." Do not argue, do not allow him to subjugate your feelings. Be calm but be relentless.

This may likely make it difficult for you to remain friends. I believe that if he is capable of dealing with it on his own (I mean without hospitalization) this should eventually foment such result. He may be too far gone or unwilling to accept your opinion.


Additionally, it may be helpful to study philosophical analyses of truth. The western concept of absolute, objective truth is far from universal. If your friend is willing to recognize his problem, this may be a non-threatening avenue for him to explore. It may help him understand why what he is doing is making you feel how you do, without the pressure of an accusatory or prescriptive approach. Maybe a discussion is in order of why he believes things that are so different from the things you believe. Of course, whether or not he actually believes his own lies must also be considered.

I've read through what I've written and if it helps you deal with the kind of situation that I've faced it will be worth the reticence I feel about posting. Good luck. We all need it.
posted by headless at 5:36 PM on April 16, 2006

Throughout university (from '83 to '88) one of our group of friends (I'll call him Simon) did the same thing, more or less. He'd make stuff up, blatantly. He even faked a bit of an English accent -- neither of his parents had one, nor had his family lived in the UK in the past several generations. All of us knew he did it, and we'd just roll our eyes and say 'Well, that's Simon being Simon again', and let him do it. He wasn't hurting anyone with it, and it was so transparent as to be amusing.

We always wondered if he actually knew he was doing it, but once you got past the comical bullshittery, it didn't matter to us much. It was just part of Simonness, and in most other ways, he was a great, amusing, steadfast kind of guy. I was probably actually the person most annoyed by it.

The closeness of our friendship suffered, and was strained to the breaking point (but patched up, more or less), because he lied about his relationship with an ex-girlfriend of his that I had a fling with. She was complicit, of course, but I wouldn't have even entertained the idea of getting together with her if he hadn't sworn they were long and irrevocably parted, romantically. So there was a downside to the lies, for all concerned, too.

I haven't seen him in years, but friends back in Canada tell me he's relatively successful and happy (and has since, not coincidentally, I suppose, studied law) and still the same.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:21 PM on April 16, 2006

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