Seasons change, but people don't??
April 29, 2007 7:26 PM   Subscribe

How can a compulsive liar change their ways?

Someone very dear to me is, and has been as long as I have known him, a chronic compulsive liar. He has a good heart, and doesn't usually ever set out to hurt anyone. However, he has, literally, a compulsion to lie. Even simple questions, like who he has gone to lunch with, are often met with fabrications, and he can't articulate the reasons he does this.

A lot of the things he lies about do make more sense though -- rather than ever risk any discomfort or worrying anyone or hurting their feelings, he will make up something, even to those he loves and cares about the most.

However, he is committed to changing. He has been in counseling since February, which seemed to help temporarily, but he has fallen back into old habits. Things have come to a head for him recently because of his lying problem, and he knows he really does have to change now. He is struggling though. How can someone change a habit like this that is so ingrained, and also so hurtful to those around them? Any MeFites with advice?
posted by srrh to Human Relations (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think it is very hard. I have a family member who is a compulsive liar and he hasn't changed in the last 20 years. However he has never commited to any kind of change either, so there's a difference right there.

I was thinking about this 'people do/don't change' thing last night and I realized I've known several people who have changed radically (for the better) and stayed changed. I think the closest to a reason I can pinpoint is that their old strategies ceased to work and they realised that 'being-a-better-person' was simply a much more successful strategy for living.

So in simple behaviourist terms, you need to make 'lying' a less successful (in your friends' terms) strategy than 'telling-the-truth'. If your friend seeks to avoid conflict by lying, you need to make lying more conflictual than telling the truth and so on.

Good luck. It's tough, but (some) people can change.
posted by unSane at 8:06 PM on April 29, 2007

To boil it down a bit more: People change when they perceived pain of not changing as being greater than the pain of changing. If someone tries to spare him the pain that is a natural result of his undesirable behaviour, they are supporting that behaviour.
posted by winston at 8:37 PM on April 29, 2007

Previous questions about compulsive lying:

posted by MsMolly at 8:37 PM on April 29, 2007

I read both of those threads already, but neither really apply, because he doesn't make up outlandish stories, and honestly the situations just aren't very similar. Thanks for looking though!

Also winston, unsane: I agree with what both of you are saying, but it's hard to put it into practice, even to help him. For example, how can I make lying "more conflictual" if I can only tell when he's lying maybe 50% of the time? It is very natural for him and he doesn't have any tells -- it's just flaws in stories that don't quite match up that give him away.
posted by srrh at 8:53 PM on April 29, 2007

As you probably realize, this is fundamentally his problem not yours. However, you can make some caring suggestions and see if he listens.

Is he still in counseling? Does he feel comfortable with his therapist? If the answers are not "yes" and "yes" then fixing that might be the first thing.

Other thoughts:
Help him talk about why he wants to change. The clearer it is in his own head that this is something he really has to do, the better. He can even make a list and post it or carry it with him or repeat it as an affirmation - the idea is keep in mind why telling the truth is better so he will remember in the moment.

One way to make lying more uncomfortable is if he can commit to "fessing up". First step would be for him to review his day and either tell someone (like you) or write in a journal all of the lies he can remember telling. I can remember from days of trying to lose weight that just knowing that I was going to have to record the food later made it easier for me not to eat it. Same idea.

Second step would be to go back and tell people that he was lying and then give them the truth. (Obviously start with close friends who are supporting his efforts to change.)

Finally, you can choose how you want to respond when you do know that he is lying to you. If he is honestly trying to change, then maybe the two of you can talk about what the most helpful response would be. (And of course, you need to take care of your own needs too if his lies are causing you problems.)

Good luck!!
posted by metahawk at 9:34 PM on April 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

ignore the lies and reward him for telling the truth. if you think he's lied to you, just ask him the question again, neutrally. you don't want to punish him--it'll only stress him out and make him fall back on it more.

when he does tell you something you know to be true, say brightly, "thanks! i really appreciate your honesty." depending on your relationship, a hug or a pat wouldn't be out of order. something pleasant that he'll look forward to next time.

i don't know if this will work--but there was a great article in the new york times about using animal training methods on difficult people. it boiled down to ignoring the bad and rewarding the good.

also you might ask to go to the therapist with him and see if he/she can give you tips on how to reinforce his new goals at home. or get a new therapist, maybe a cognitive/behavioral therapist, who will focus more on changing his behavior.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:06 PM on April 29, 2007

Even simple questions, like who he has gone to lunch with, are often met with fabrications, and he can't articulate the reasons he does this.

I'm not a compulsive liar - I'm generally an honest person - but "who did you go to lunch with" is the kind of question that sorely tempts me to make something up.

Not because I'm ashamed or embarrassed of who I've gone to lunch with, but because I tend to be a fairly private person. The honest answer that I want to give to questions like "Who did you go to lunch with?" or "Why can't you join us this Thursday?" is "that's none of your business," but of course I can't say that without being rude.

I'm probably way off base here, because I'm extrapolating from your one example, and it's the sort of question which strikes a nerve with me, but I wanted to throw the possibility out there all the same.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:11 AM on April 30, 2007

What is his compulsive lying accomplishing? If he can understand why this "works" for him he can work on changing his behavior.

For example: Say he lies about trivial things such as who he had lunch with. In this case, it's true. Is he lying because he fears offending someone, ashamed of who he was lunching with, feeling a compulsive need to entertain or fascinate, etc.?

If he could take a moment to reflect on how he's feeling, what he's thinking, etc., that will give him a lot of information as to why lying is something he does. This is especially helpful after he's told someone a lie. Taking time to think about what he "gained" from telling that lie would be great information.

I think understanding the underlying motive for behaviors is fundamental to changing them. Kudos for him to take the therapy approach -- hopefully he'll get a lot of information about himself during the sessions. Also, habits and behaviors are very difficult to break. There's no switch, and it is very common to default back to our "normal" behaviors.

His willingness is the first step towards change. And it's hard to remember this when we do things that don't make us feel very good, but remind him to be compassionate towards himself. Best wishes.
posted by loquat at 1:54 AM on May 1, 2007

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