What is pathological lying?


A pathological liar is someone who lies compulsively, often without logic or reason. Repeated lying can be a symptom of several greater issues, or afflictions, including addiction. This can make diagnosis of a pathological liar challenging.

Why do pathological liars, lie?

Studies have suggested that lying can be the direct result of a head injury, or in some cases trauma. Ultimately the reason an individual is lying needs to be determined case by case.

One study, from 2016, even suggests that lying can become easier over time. In the study MRIs were given to a test group. It monitored their emotional response as they lied. The discomfort was indicated to decrease as their amygdala activity decreased during each subsequent lie.

Why lie about addiction?

Most of the individuals who use drugs or drink or gamble to excess, lie about their behavior.

“Addiction is by nature a very isolating experience,” says Henry Magnus, Lanna Rehab therapist.

“When an individual is hiding an addiction, they are lying to themselves first – they are convincing  themselves that what they are doing is fine.”

The majority of people who undergo treatment for addiction need to make amends to family and friends as part of their recovery. In some cases they have been deceptive about loaning money, or their whereabouts, to enable their use.

Advice for families

In many cases family members are the first to suspect an individual may need help, but Henry says “the family members tend to try and rescue the individual from their addiction. They support their lies to save their job or reputation. This can enable them to further their addiction, rather than to get help.”

So, how do you help someone who is compulsively lying to hide their addiction?

“My advice is to use empathy and compassion. The addict tends to isolate and avoid because when they encounter family members there can be a lot of friction. Instead of being accountable for missing a birthday dinner as one example, the individual may go missing altogether for a number of days,” says Henry.

“With this in mind, my general advice is to not threaten them, or give them ultimatums; or makes excuses for them. Don’t rescue them, but don’t abandon them. Simply say ‘I am here to help you, when you want it’, and make yourself available when they do reach out.”

Unfortunately many people hit rock bottom before they decide to ask for help.

How to tell if someone is lying

Lies are often overtly elaborate; or, extremely evasive with details.

They may give an unusually complex story with twists and turns. It could portray them as the victim or the hero; or in contrast –

They may appear unnecessarily coy with details. For example if they claim to have made a bad investment, they won’t elaborate on the name of the fund or business. They can get easily agitated when you ask for simple information, like the date of the investment.

Defensive phrases like, ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ or ‘let’s just leave it’, are likely to flat-line the conversation early on.

Example of lies about addiction

When people are lying to hide their addiction, their lies tend to focus around explaining missing periods of time or money.

Generally lies can be categorized in three ways, they:

1. Divert blame to others.

2. Involve gaslighting the person who is confronting them.

3. Involve elaborate stories that paint the person telling them as either the victim or hero.

Examples of lies about money

  • I did repaid the money, it must be an issue with my bank…
  • I put that cash in your wallet! you must have lost it, you can’t keep track of things.
  • I am just short $100, because my car broke down and I left my wallet at my friends house.

Examples of lies about missing time

  • I’m late because my boss wouldn’t let me leave work
  • Don’t blame me for missing your birthday. You gave me the wrong details, it’s your fault. You always get the names of restaurants wrong.
  • I’m late because my my friend locked himself out of his apartment and I had to help him break in.

Small lies everyday

For Chris, who was at DARA Rehab in 2019, he lied so he could drink.

“I’d hide beers in the car and say I had to go out and get something so I could sneak a drink,” says Chris who would, “do the same things if I had friends over. I’d hide drinks in my bedroom. I’d do anything I could to hide it.”

Chris shares that during his addiction:

“I always had my stash nearby no matter where I was.”

Like many people living through addiction he, would go to lengths to keep using and drinking. He was often aware that his lies weren’t believed but still sustained them so he could maintain his addiction.

“I was embarrassed,” says Chris. “I knew I wasn’t as clever as I thought I was and people knew. I was living this lie and having to hide this really negative part of me from my family, friends and the people I loved.

Hiding an addiction takes a lot of time and energy. For Chris, his recovery meant he was gifted more hours in each day that he could spend living his life.


Try and remember: 

Drinking and substance abuse do encourage antisocial behaviors like lying. If you are worried about a friend, relative or work colleague, please reach out.

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