oh what a tangled web unreliable narrators weave
June 10, 2024 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Someone told me an elaborate whopper, representing a wish fulfillment fantasy as reality; I would like to understand better the mental and emotional state that can produce that "genre" of a lie. Details below.

Someone close to me lied to me in a pretty major way. The fact of the lie itself is pretty quotidian -- it is what it is -- things like that happen, people lie, and under the circumstances, the basic premise of the lie had a practical benefit to it for the lie-teller.

But I can't quite wrap my head around the content and delivery of the lie. They had a desire and fantasy for a specific thing happening, and then they told me about it as if that specific thing had happened in reality. I want to keep things gender-neutral, so for the purposes of my Ask the person who lied to me will be "Blue", and all the pronouns will be they/them. I am especially interested in the perspective of people who habitually lie or who used to lie (if you don't feel comfortable posting replies publicly I would also welcome replies via me-mail), or who are professionally familiar with this kind of behavior, i.e. a therapist, psychologist, etc.

Blue told me that they and their ex-spouse (let's call the ex-spouse Yellow) were reuniting and giving their marriage another chance (they had been married for a long time and had children together, but have been divorced for several years; Yellow had left Blue for another partner, and was living with that new partner). Blue told me in great detail how this reunion came about, how Blue had a family crisis they needed Yellow's help with, how Blue went to Yellow's house and had an emotional breakdown because they were so stressed out, how that led to a conversation about their marriage and what had gone wrong between them. Blue then found out, in the course of this conversation, that Yellow was no longer with the new partner they had left the marriage for, but had been too proud to tell Blue that it didn't work out. Yellow eventually asked Blue if they could try again, Blue acquiesced, and they agreed that Yellow would move back into Blue's house (which was their marital home before the split), and they would go to couples therapy. Blue reproduced for me the conversation they had, doing direct quotes in both voices even, and tracing for me how this conversation eventually arrived at a joint decision to reconcile. We talked about this for a while, I treated the story as real (because I thought it was), asked follow-up questions, etc. that Blue had thoughtful answers for.

All of it, aside from the fact that Blue really was married to and then divorced from Yellow, and the fact that Blue had stressful family stuff going on, turned out to be a complete fabrication. When we discussed it later, Blue told me that they had wanted to get back together with Yellow very badly, saw some problems in Yellow's current relationship, and hoped that these problems would create an opening for Yellow to miss them and come back to them. Blue said that they told me what they deeply hoped for / fantasized about as if it had really happened.

Putting aside the explanation that Blue was having a break with reality and was genuinely unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy (for various reasons, I am sure that is not what was going on), can someone help me understand what is either the motivation or the emotional reward for this kind of lying? Is it pleasurable to voice a fantasy to someone and have them treat it as reality? Does having someone else treat a fantasy as if it were true make it feel somehow more real to the speaker? Is that an exciting or comforting feeling? Is it some form of magical thinking / manifesting, i.e. "if I tell a story about how I want this thing to happen, it's putting it out there into the universe, and it may come true"? Is it a fear that unless one provides lots and lots of details for verisimilitude, their lie will be recognized as such?

I would appreciate responses that engage with this specific question. Please refrain from speculating on details I didn't provide, or the broader context. What I want from this Ask is to hopefully gain insight into an emotional state and behavior (narrating a fantasy in great detail as if it were real) that is so alien to me that I don't have a theory of mind for it.
posted by virve to Human Relations (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It may have been wishful/magical thinking. Maybe they have been playing this fantasy out over and over in their head and thought they'd try the story out on a 3rd party to see how it played out, if it seemed plausible.
Maybe they were feeling particularly shitty or depressed, and needed to feel *something* different and chose this particularly duplicitous manner of reward-seeking behavior.
Why they chose you? no idea.
posted by ApathyGirl at 11:55 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

I used to fabricate stories in this way in my late teens and all I can tell you is I was deeply unhappy.

My parents were extremely controlling so I had to strongly audit the things I shared with them, I didn't have close friendships, and I couldn't share my home problems with anyone without it causing bigger problems for me. On top of that, some things that were unfortunately very true but sound unbelievable were also happening to me with some school administrators, and somewhere along the way it felt safer for me to construct an elaborate fan fiction in re. certain things so I could maintain focus on the only thing that mattered to me: getting into a good enough college that I was able to move very very far away and never return.

Once I got away and started having experiences that were actually good and that I could share with others, I didn't have to rely on lies anymore to maintain my mental health.
posted by phunniemee at 12:01 PM on June 10 [23 favorites]

There is a fascinating discussion of this topic in the Hidden Brain episode, Both Things Can Be True. I won't say more than that because spoilers, but it's really worth a listen.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:04 PM on June 10 [9 favorites]

I won’t comment on the motivational / payoff question but I do have an alternate perspective on certain types of lying, YMMV whether this is helpful -

Some people legitimately struggle to articulate the specificity of what they are sharing, for various reasons (neurodiversity, age, communication / cultural factors, cognition / processing speeds, etc).

Someone specific in my life can sound like a liar if you take what they say very literally. But I “speak” “Loved One” and I know that sometimes they are trying to get all the thoughts out so quickly that they leave out pretty major who / where / what…. context, and sometimes even say “do” when they mean “don’t” or “I did” instead of “I wanted to”, things that to an outsider can sound like they are simply nonsensical, confusing or even lying.

It can be very off putting at first (and isn’t always easy now) but i have finally come to realize that there is a communication gap between me and this person, but it’s not predicated on purposely lying.

Maybe that’s part of it? Especially if this person is deeply unhappy and possibly had been repressed in some ways, maybe you got a stream of consciousness download directly from their jumbled thoughts. Maybe not a lie so much as “here’s an unadulterated transcript of the tornado in my head”.

Curious to hear others’ takes!
posted by seemoorglass at 12:39 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]

The closest I can come to this feeling is probably when I give very edited accounts of things going on in my life, to highlight things that are very positive/ego-affirming/etc. Sometimes it's because it's what I think the other person wants to hear (i.e., they don't want to know what's actually happening). Other times it's defensive, to stave off criticism or pity. Other times it's me talking myself out of things I am actually very worried about - a kind of reaction formation. But, I get the sense that my kind of "edits" are not all that unusual, and they don't involve outright fabrication of truths that will inevitably be revealed to the other person. I can only assume that when Blue outright fabricated, they were engaged in the same defense mechanisms as me, except much, much stronger and more compelling.
posted by haptic_avenger at 1:15 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I knew someone who was a habitual, elaborate liar. It took me a while to comprehend both the pervasiveness and the quality of the lying. What I can generalize or categorize about it from his point of view was that it allowed him to maintain a constant state of all choices being open to him. He wanted all of what he wanted, and didn't think facts should close off options.

Even the most basic things. Like a conversation about going out to dinner entailed agreeing on a time and a place to meet. If the occasion arose, he would eagerly agree to directly opposing plans, because he wanted to do both things. He'd then lie to both parties about the prior agreement, his availability, his need to leave early/arrive late, why he was late, etc. And it's not just that he would lie after the fact, as part of an apology or explanation. He'd lie in advance, fully setting up the situation for his benefit.

Like your friend Blue, he spooled out extensive lies about entire aspects of his life that ran counter to reality. After being discovered once, he admitted that, for him, other people functioned as audiences for his lies, tools for perpetuating them, and reflections of a self-image he enjoyed. By lying, he created a reality in the minds of friends and acquaintances that fed and reinforced his own. When those friends would ask naturally about the supposed life he led, his irrealities gained heft, "truthiness," and momentum of their own.

Needless to say it was very unsatisfying to know him in the long run. There was no there there, and the more friends were able to compare notes and propose a shared reality that negated his, the more he began to lash out angrily at us, saying e.g. we were intentionally misunderstanding him, holding him to impossibly high standards, lumping him in with "real liars." In the end we felt used, not compassionate. It also got clearer that he was constantly seeking new and distinct social groups to keep on the back burner, because he'd eventually exhaust one group and have to move on.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:15 PM on June 10 [16 favorites]

My experience in dealing with a compulsive liar was that he seemed to make things up in his head and then believed them.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:30 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]

I have a relative with a similar habit of trying to lie things into existence. For them, I think it's a sense of control in a seemingly arbitrary world. When they're lying, they get to dictate what is and what is not. It sounds like Blue might want a sense of control back. Another factor for my relative is a belief in the Just World fallacy. XYZ *has* to be true because they feel it *should* be true. I think this feeds into a sense of control. Maybe Blue feels the universe is out of control or wrong because Yellow left for another and justice hasn't been restored by her feeling miserable. In my relative's case, there's also cultural factors. When family hangs a lot on a public sense of shame or prestige, I think it can complicate things further. Maybe these two cases aren't perfectly in line, but I can 100% see my relative lying about being reuinited by with an ex that left them. Being broken up is shameful and unjust to them. Inventing a reality in which they are vindicated and balance is restored makes more sense than actual reality to their mind.
posted by XdG at 1:36 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]

I was a very imaginative child and young person, and into my college years I used to tell stories as I wished they'd happened, rather than as they did. The core was truthful, but the version I told might include me actually saying the exact right thing in the moment. I'd make the story more dramatic, because at that time in my life I loved drama. I remember once during my second year of college, calling my best friend to wail, "He's gaaaaaay!" about a boyfriend I'd just broken up with. This sounded really dramatic but the real story was that my boyfriend had another young man he'd been involved in a very drama-filled on-and-off again relationship with for several years; I knew about the other young man from the nearly the beginning. Other Young Man came back into my boyfriend's life while we were dating, and I decided after not very long that I wasn't up to being in a relationship with someone who was also in a relationship with someone else, especially one as stormy and hot-and-cold as theirs.

I was definitely broken-hearted. But it's not like my boyfriend being bisexual was a surprise to me, or his boyfriend showing up again was a surprise to me. There was no big dramatic reveal and no immediate breakup. But I always wanted the things that happened to me to be BIGGER and more exciting and more special, so I told it, at first, for peak drama. I loved attention (I still do) and "Improving" my stories was a way to get the attention I craved.

It took a really deliberate effort on my part in my twenties to stop doing this, and to tell things as they actually happened.

I dated someone like cocoagirl's friend as well, someone I came to see as a pathological liar. He lied when there was no reason to lie, about things like what he'd had for lunch, and he also told contradictory stories to different people while somehow holding both those stories in his head as truth. From him, I learned to recognize the just-too-perfect anecdote about that thing that happened on the bus or in class or whatever. The story that sounds suspiciously like a scene in a TV show, say. Especially if someone has a lot of those stories. I tend to pull back from these people.

It's promising to me that your friend was able to admit they'd told you a fantasy. In my experience, the pathological liar will never admit to a lie. They'll just spin some new tale that somehow makes the first one true.

I don't have a theory of mind, either, for someone telling a tale from whole cloth like this. Based on my own experience as a young fabricator, I'd have guessed this would be habitual, and that there'd a stronger core of truth to the story. But I can imagine there'd be tremendous comfort in bringing someone else into the fantasy for a little while, even if it might undermine the trust in the relationship going forward.
posted by Well I never at 1:42 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]

I've known people like this. My sister, for one - practically a poster child for the lying-to-tell-a-better-story club. And another old chum, who's always done the same thing; now it's gotten worse, more fantastical, he injects scenes from films into his stories, which listeners recognize as not his own, but we just shake our heads, in silent pity. The amateur psychologists in the family chalk this behavior up to managing an Inferiority Complex.

BTW both of these individuals thrive on Drama.
posted by Rash at 1:54 PM on June 10

It's magical thinking, it's a form of disassociation from reality.

It starts as a fantasy, and then it becomes a narrative, and people may spend some amount of time living that alternate life in their head. And then an opportunity pops up to live it in 3D - speak it into existence as someone else said, I'd personally characterize it as believing so strongly in it that you assume that by the time your colorful remix of the truth could be discovered it will have become true already. It's kind of like buying time to fix everything.

This is what happens when you're not making enough of the right neurochemicals and too many of the wrong ones.

But here's the other component: at this point, your nervous system powerfully needs it to be true after living it in your head. And the opportunity to tell that story creates an absolute flood of relief chemicals and THAT is where the story gets out of hand. Because a good liar who's lying for gain knows that details will derail a lie faster than anything, so that person would say "welllll, I think things might be turning around, ask me next month." That person knows exactly how to work the valve; the messed-up person has blown the valve off the hose just by starting to open it, because of the tremendous pressure.

I know this feeling enough that it's a big red flag that my depression is not in check. MY stories are mostly to get me out of trouble - the thing I said I would do and haven't even started, making up a version of me that is FINE when I am not fine - and there's a good bit of panic fueling them from underneath as well, just this incredible firehose of "I'm gonna fix this, I swear I'm gonna fix it before anybody finds out how absolutely fucked up I am right now" but it's not happening in your head with that level of clarity - it's more like "I will die if anyone finds out how bad it is".

I make up two hundred of these in my head for every one I even attempt to deploy, though, because I'm old enough to know it's not going to work. They get me through the day sometimes, though, thanks to pretending I'm sort of okay. But as a kid and in younger years, sometimes I just ran away from relationships knowing I had burned a bridge, and as I got older I learned to be more like, "yeah, I mischaracterized that, sorry, I wasn't okay" and then to mostly not do it at all.

I found myself, not long ago, trying to give some industry advice to someone I don't know super well, but just enough that I could juuust hear the panic and desperation under this whole story they were spinning about how they had Figured It Out and Everything Was Under Control. If it had been a total stranger, I would have just thought that's how they sound, and if it'd been a closer friend I would have been like "okay, uhh, I feel like you're setting up some impossibilities here, let's reassess?"
posted by Lyn Never at 2:01 PM on June 10 [16 favorites]

I think a person can delude themselves without this being a full-on break from reality. Lots of us do this in minor ways we can think of as denial (e.g., thinking a cheating partner is faithful despite all evidence to the contrary, eating like shit most of the time but believing you eat healthy most of the time, etc.) The lies we tell ourselves become narratives we tell others (in eating example, telling your doctor you eat a salad every day even though it’s been years since you did that.)

Of course, there is a spectrum, and some delusions are mundane and some are extreme. But I do see it as part of the same spectrum.

I do think there are immoral bad people who lie to fuck with you and control you, but my sense is the vast majority of lies like you describe are delusions and wishful thinking borne of shame and pain. It’s not that it’s fun to tell the tale of reconciliation and break your trust, it’s that the alternative is unbearable.

I actually did used to do a lot of shame-based lying. I feel ashamed (ha ha) of that, and it’s hard to admit. In my case I was deeply ashamed of the real answers and I knew the “right” answers, so I said what people wanted to hear to avoid reality and judgment.

So, “how was your weekend” would be answered by “great, I went to the farmers market and saw two friends for drinks” instead of “bad, I didn’t get out of bed and I did nothing and saw no one just like every other weekend.” I knew these were lies and I knew lying was bad, but the truth didn’t feel like an option. And while I didn’t believe they were true, the little normalizing details were crucial to maintaining the image that I was a person who was at least capable of someday leaving the house and having friends again. You know?

Also, some people are compulsive liars which isn’t a break from reality either; it’s an unhealthy compulsion that may have served a purpose at some point. I have an extremely volatile mother and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a link between liars and unstable parents.
posted by kapers at 2:20 PM on June 10 [6 favorites]

I wonder if your friend is telling you this version of events to see how you react; to see if you're supportive: "great, you're back with Yellow! I always liked them, I'm so happy for you!" or, "Oh, really...is that a good thing for you, do you think?". I've got friends who tell very different versions of stories depending on how much they want encouragement about their actions or reactions. As others have said above, some of it's protective lying, to normalize their own self they present to the world; some is probably wishful thinking, some is that desire to present a more dramatic life, and some is to encourage sympathy and reinforce your good opinion of them.
posted by winesong at 3:04 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

What you're describing seems almost like an extroverted version of daydreaming. Creating a fantasy world but needing to do so out loud in order to process the thoughts.
posted by lapis at 3:07 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]

This sort of thinking about the desired future as though it already existed has gotten encouragement in recent-ish years from a culture of "manifesting" ala the book The Secret. It's not a far jump from that to thinking, maybe unconsciously, that this sort of lie is part of that acting-as-if and could actually help bring about the lied-about outcome.
posted by momus_window at 3:12 PM on June 10 [5 favorites]

I know you noted that you don't want speculation on the broader context, but if you don't mind sharing, I think just a couple details about how this conversation came about might help. That is, did Blue just approach you out of nowhere and say, "hey, virve, something crazy happened to me this weekend, wanna hear it?" Were you having an unrelated conversation and then something you said prompted this?

I ask mainly because I would think one thing if Blue had just randomly decided to drop in and give you a totally fake update on their life, versus you saying something offhand about Yellow that "reminded" them about this and got them going telling you the story – the latter being most likely a shame/pain lie response as other posters have noted, and the former being... something more advanced, and imo more troubling, but I don't know quite what. Relatedly, I'm also curious when or why they turned around and outright told you that it wasn't actually true.
posted by throwitawayurthegarbageman at 3:28 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]

I feel really sorry for Blue. My take on it would be that they were hurting so badly, missing their former spouse, that they needed to pretend that their fantasy was real. They knew you would find out it was a lie but they were so desperate to feel like it was true, even for a few minutes, they didn't care about the consequences of being caught. Can you imagine missing somebody so much that you'd do a thing like that? Can you imagine how broken down you'd have to be, for that to feel right?

Whatever was going on, I think Blue badly needs to talk to a therapist. Blue is in a dark place.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:29 PM on June 10 [9 favorites]

If they were generally known as honest and then started up with the lies, maybe it’s a case of “nothing left to lose” / “fukkit” - like, I’ve been good what did it get me / burn it all down.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:58 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

I've spent time with a few folks who, I learned later, were pretty casual liars. A few of them had a history of addiction. I think one person was so accustomed to lying to cover his addiction that it just became easier to lie. Another friend had a pattern of lying that he told me he developed during his marriage and he found hard to let go, even after the marriage ended.

I don't know if either of these situations is analogous to what you experienced.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:37 PM on June 10

I used to do that a lot when I was high school age. Looking back at the nature of the lies it’s pretty clear that I was desperate to be somewhere else doing something else, and saying the alternate scenarios out loud made them feel more real to me.

One thing I know for sure is that it wasn’t really important to me if the other person believed me. It was the process of telling the story that helped.

I still lie reflexively during social interactions (“Wow you’re looking really good. Did you lose weight?“) and occasionally just to make life simpler, but I found much more mature ways to deal with the parts of life I wish were different.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:51 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

There was a point in my life where it felt like there was a Disaster Magnet following me around, so when social sharing happened I would defer, pivot, ask a question because if I actually shared, some in the circle would engage in ways that I’d just feel worse afterwards. Mostly kind remarks but some that reinforce rank/class. It would be really, really tempting to just Make Something Up that was Disaster Free, or peer-level, to avoid a truth-and-personal-shame spiral for the nth time if there really isn’t any update that ranks with everyone else’s normal-to-good.
posted by childofTethys at 6:57 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

My brother (and to some extent my mom) is a compulsive liar. What I find compelling and astonishing about your story is that your friend, when caught, admitted it. None of the liars in my family would ever. Not ever. No matter how extreme and implausible the narcissistic fantasy (which, as with Blue, is what all their lies always were one way or another). Now that my mother also has a disease that causes dementia, her lies have become her reality much more fully. I have no idea if she knows she's lying anymore, or --assuming she doesn't -- when the break with reality occurred. But it's promising for Blue that they admitted it. Blue can get better if they can tell the truth.
posted by shadygrove at 7:46 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: throwitawayurthegarbageman:

Re: details you asked about, I can see how they would be helpful for answering my question. So, while still keeping this intentionally vague, here are the general contours of how it went down:

Blue told me this lie as a reason for why they couldn't follow through on certain plans we had in a "my life circumstances changed and this affects our plans" conversation. So the answer is, they used the lie to extricate themselves from a commitment they had made. As I said in my Ask, I know that kind of functional lie is common, and I have known enough avoidant and people-pleasing people in my life to understand why lies like that are tempting for a certain type of person. It was the scope and the details of the lie, them doing the two voices, direct quotes, and a long discussion with me predicated on the notion that this reunion was real, that left me baffled and resulted in this query.

The reason why they confessed was because, as those things tend to, their lie came to light in a messy way. I had occasion to interact with Yellow, and mentioned this reunion, which at that point I believed was happening. But, as it turned out, Yellow is still happily living with their new partner, and had no idea that Blue harbored these feelings or fantasies of them getting back together. There is more to the story that's not really pertinent to my question, and that resulted in Yellow being angry with Blue, and Blue being angry with me, but that's how/why the truth came out.
posted by virve at 8:00 PM on June 10 [6 favorites]

In the immortal words of Seinfeld, "Its not a lie, if YOU believe it."

Recently I found a small item I really, really want to find. When I went up to get it again, though, it is nowhere to be found.

Right now I actually can't figure out if I did find the item, or if I have been thinking about finding it so much that I literally dreamed myself finding it (ie, while asleep) but that dream was so real I remember it just like reality.

Sometimes the borderline between dream and reality is just that fine. If you imagine something over and over, rehearsing it to yourself in different ways, it can become difficult to discern what actually happened vs what you have been rehearsing to yourself.

A realistic application of this is, sometimes have a certain message I want to tell someone next time I see them - something quite important. So I rehearse doing this to myself (ie, imagine doing it) quite a few times.

Now a week or two has passed. I distinctly remember talking to the person and giving them the message.

But: Is it my internal rehearsals I am remembering, or real life?

I imagine myself a truthful person, and I never deliberately lie in order to provoke drama etc.

But I have had enough of these little episodes, where even I literally cannot definitely remember whether it is reality I am remembering, or an imagined or dreamt scenario, that I can easily imagine other people - for example, people with much stronger imaginations and maybe under much higher levels of stress, anxiety, etc - experiencing this to a much higher degree.

One thing that makes this kind of scenario believable to me, is that I have seen firsthand, many, many times, the power of visualization in improving performance - for example, performance of an athlete or a musician.

What happens is, if you visualize an upcoming performance frequently enough, and over a long-enough period of time, and with enough detail, it becomes to your brain and your nervous system almost as though you had experienced the thing in real life. After a significant course of such visualizations, when you step out onto the stage or playing field in real life, to your mind it is as though you are entering, again, a place and a situation where you have been a hundred or a thousand times.

In reality, you may never had been there at all - but only in your mind.

To your mind, though, it's one and the same.

Most of the time, you can still make the distinction between your memory of rehearsing vs the actual performance. But I can see how easy it might be to get the two mixed up - and this is going to be far more likely when under stress or when when distracted by other things, for example, strong emotions or difficult mental conditions, under strong anxiety, or maybe just being very busy, overworked, and low on sleep.
posted by flug at 8:29 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

Simple answer, not very satisfying: this is a trauma response.

More complicated is how to protect yourself in future. I recommend skepticism when stories have way too much detail. All that detail is a hint that someone might be lying.
posted by acridrabbit at 8:36 PM on June 10

Blue told me this lie as a reason for why they couldn't follow through on certain plans we had in a "my life circumstances changed and this affects our plans" conversation. So the answer is, they used the lie to extricate themselves from a commitment they had made.

This calls back to my answer and now I'm even more empathetic to Blue. I can tell you that for me, I'm scrambling up my anxiety about the commitment I made (common problem when I am Not Okay) with the magical thinking, which internally sounds like the Best Possible Excuse because of that nervous system pressure.

The core of the problem here is that Blue - probably for an array of reasons but with generally being unwell as an accelerant - needs to cancel the plans. It's entirely possible that you are not at all the problem here and would have been perhaps disappointed or inconvenienced but accepting that this wasn't going to happen (like a rational adult), but in Blue's mind the only way to get out of it was this way-overengineered story.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:52 AM on June 11

I used to do this online when I was a teenager. I would post on the forum (!) my friends were on and make up stories about things that had supposedly happened in my life. It wasn't anything unbelievable or fantastical, more like making up conflicts with people I didn't like or saying that a friend had a crush on me. Generally the stories were about situations or incidents that would make people admire, feel sorry for, or be curious about me.

It's hard to describe the headspace I was in while I was actually writing out the lies, but at those times I did believe what I was saying. I mean, I knew it wasn't real, but also, at the same time, I believed it, and if someone had asked me about it I wouldn't have really seen it as lying. Even now when I think about it 15 years later, I still kind of don't! I know in my head that those things were made up lies, but I don't have the same emotional response as when I think about other types of lies I have told. It would have been strange to me if someone told me they were bothered by this, although there were times when other friends on the forum were revealed to have told a big lie and I felt genuinely angry and distressed and thought they had done something really wrong.

It just felt really good to tell those elaborate stories about myself and imagine being the type of person who would have experiences other people wanted to hear about instead of being a mentally unwell teenager alone in my bedroom all the time. I liked when people would ask questions because they found what I was saying interesting. I liked when people would say things about how they perceived me because it felt good to imagine that those things were true. I felt like I could be the person they thought I was if not for my circumstances. The attention and validation felt important to me because I wasn't getting it anywhere else. Having other people participate in these fantasies made them feel more real, plus I got the social benefits I would've gotten if I had actually experienced the things I was lying about.

I stopped doing this mostly because I stopped being so involved in online communities. I started to make more friends in real life and I didn't want them to find out if I lied about someone we both knew or change their behavior because of a lie I told. It wasn't a conscious decision like, "Lying was very bad and I'm going to stop from now on," I just didn't think to do it anymore, and then I guess I grew out of it or something. I don't do it now. It still doesn't bother me to lie unless I think I might get caught, although I try to avoid it.

I think basically I just really wanted really desperately for these things to be true and they weren't very far off from my real life and I had to lie a lot for safety reasons so I was used to lying and good at it, and all of these things together made it easy for me to make up stories and sort of integrate them into my brain to make them feel real. Maybe for Blue this lie started off as a way to get out of an obligation and then they got a bit lost in the fantasy of what it would be like to have this wonderful thing happen to them and then get to share it with you. It probably felt good when you asked follow up questions and they got to think about how they would answer if the story was real and continue to pretend. I have absolutely no advice on what you should say to Blue about this because I still don't know what, if anything, anyone could have said to me back then to get me to understand why my behavior was a problem and then stop it. Even now, to be honest, I only sort of get it.
posted by birthday cake at 9:19 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

I used to work with a guy that was constantly lying about his previous life. We all agreed he was “an amazing bullshitter” which was the terminology we had at hand, but as I’ve gotten older I realized he was a compulsive liar.

I have never been good at accepting bullshit, so a few times I called him out on his more fabulous tales. As an earlier poster said, he would *never* admit it. Even when it was obvious the audience wasn’t buying it, he would become indignant and add complications to the story (even though they didn’t add anything to its plausibility—rather the reverse).

This probably doesn’t help your question, but it at least supports the contention that these people exist. And he couldn’t seem to help himself. I’m not even sure if he knew he was lying or not.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 3:39 PM on June 11

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