Stop Walking on Eggshells

When someone in your life has borderline or narcissistic personality disorder

Why Some Narcissists and Borderlines Lie

Some falsehoods are deliberate; others aren't

This is part 9 on my series on the similarities and differences between people with borderline personality disorder and those with narcissistic personality disorder. You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4A here, part 4B here part 5 here, part 6 here, part 7 here, and part 8 here.

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"My attorney, familiar with borderline mental health divorce cases, told me to go to the police to explain to them that I was about to say yes to her request for a divorce She had made many false accusations in the past or been violent. I then said to her with the kids home as witnesses, 'You know the email you sent me threatening divorce? I think we should talk about it.'

"From that she called my family, her family, my attorney, the neighbors, and the priest who performed our wedding ceremony and told them that I came home from a bar stinking of alcohol yelling and throwing things in front of the kids, screaming that I wanted a divorce, probably because of infidelity. I don't know if she lied on purpose or had convinced herself so thoroughly that she was a victim when bad things happened to her."

Many things can destroy trust and intimacy between partners when one is a high conflict person. But one of the top ones is lying--especially when it is about extramarital contact (something I will talk about separately because it's a huge topic). A disclaimer: not all people with BPD or knowingly NPD lie. It's just that those who do lie so thoroughly and often that they spoil it for those who do not.

First, let's define what a lie is, because what constitutes a lie and the truth is a gray area. The book Lying, Cheating, and Carrying On (edited by Salman Akhtar and Henri Parens, Jason Aronson Publishers, Lanham, Maryland, 2009) contains several essays about lying. In the essay Lies, Liars, and Lying: An Introductory Overview, Salman Akhtar, M.D. lists several types of conscious lies, i.e., those that Pinocchio knows are false.  

Here are examples that a 17-year-old girl might tell to parents who went on an overnight trip and left her at home "alone."

1. Lies of omission: telling the truth but not the whole truth in a way designed to mislead ("While you were gone I watched a DVD"--not mentioning the five people who were also over and who drank beer).

2. Not speaking up when asked a direct question. (Silence when asked, "What did you do when we were gone?")

3. Making up facts that are not true ("I did my homework while you were gone").

4. Embellishing the truth is a way that misleads ("I took care of the cat"-meaning she petted it a few times but forgot to feed him on time or change the litter box).

5. Insisting that a truth known to someone is a falsehood ("I did not have friends over!").

6. "Gaslighting," a purposeful attempt to erode another's reality by denying their experience ("No, the house looks exactly like it did when you left. Is there something wrong with your vision?"). One woman in therapy once said that nearly all the quarrels in her family was about whose reality would be dubbed the "right" one.

7. Acknowledging the truth but assigning motives that were never there to make yourself look better ("Yes, I had people here but only because I was so lonely without you that I was getting very depressed and started crying").

8. Keeping secrets for the wrong reasons (One of the friends stole the mother's expensive earrings).

Now let's look at unconscious lies, or untruths that the teller believes on a conscious level. Being truthful takes the ability to be honest with one's own self, because if you're not honest with yourself, you won't be honest with others. For example:

1) When a narcissist says that everyone loves and respects her when it's obvious to others it's not true, that's an unconscious lie. In fact, an NP's "false self" means that their core identity is one whale of a lie. (That's not to say that narcissists don't tell purposeful, conscious lies: they do for reasons we will go into shortly.) Les Carter explains this well in his book, Why Is It Always About You?: The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism. He writes (p 17):

In a sense, narcissists are out of touch with reality. They are not mentally ill, like a psychotic; they are just unwilling to acknowledge truth that doesn't match their preferences. While normal people can weigh events rationally and draw fair conclusions about themselves, narcissists do not. They lack the objectivity to live with reasonable insight because their need for self exaltation does not allow them to accept that their perceptions might not be the ultimate truth. Their idealized view of themselves blinds them as they try to make sense of life, particularly the elements in themselves that might be imperfect or that might require adjustments (and they never want to make adjustments).

2) When a borderline's intense emotions lead him to use projection or emotional reasoning (feelings equal facts), that's an unconscious lie. In the book Communication and Emotional Life by Paul Ekman, PhD (Holt Paperbacks; 2nd edition: 2007), the author says that when we are gripped by a strong emotion that doesn't fit the circumstances, we interpret what is happening in a way that fits with the emotions we are feeling instead of the facts presented to us. In other words, we seek to confirm what we already feel and ignore new evidence that does not fit, maintain or justify the emotion.

We all have this "confirmation bias" to some degree. But it is a way of life for people with borderline personality disorder--whom, you will remember, also have abrupt mood swings, feel more intensely for longer time periods, and take additional time to go back to their emotional baseline. The more chaotic the emotions, as they are for our borderline friends, the more deep-rooted the process.

And as if that weren't enough, lingering negative feelings about other issues make one more likely to see negative intent. BPs tend to remember every hurt "done to them" as though it happened yesterday. Their false conclusions lead to problematic decisions and behaviors since they're always assuming the worst. They also project their own feelings onto others, so their "You hate me," means "I hate myself." These are untruths, but not really overt lies (as damaging as they may be).

As the opening quote said, it's hard to tell the difference between a conscious lie and a conscious one. A man says, "It is like we both walk into the same movie theater. I thought that we entered into see the same movie. We sit together. We enter and leave at the same time. But afterwards, I learned that what she saw was entirely different from me, even though we sat and watched the same movie. Her version is no where even close to mine."

Now that we know the difference between conscious and unconscious lies (and a bit about how they work with those with BPD and NPD) let's take an even closer look. 

 Borderline Personality Disorder

In the essay Lies and Their Deception in the same book, Lying, Cheating, and Carrying On, Clarence Watson, JD, MD pulls no punches when he says, (p. 98):

Given that a BPD hallmark is interpersonal relationships that alternate between idealization and devaluation, the person with BPD may distort facts aimed at the person with whom they desire a personal relationship.

Whether through attempts to draw persons into [intense and rocky interpersonal] relationships or viscously attack another during episodes of the extreme rage associated with perceived abandonment-the borderline personality may use lies and deceitfulness to accomplish these objectives.

Remember that individuals with BPD have rejection sensitivity, are deathly afraid of abandonment, and alternately idolize and devalue themselves and others. Lying, Watson says, may, "Maintain the interpersonal relationships that they cyclically annihilate and attempt to resuscitate to avoid abandonment. However, these individuals turn a blind eye to the reality that the repetitive deception ...may ultimately bring about the destruction of the relationship and the actual abandonment they sought to avoid."

Impulsivity and poor impulse control, he writes, means they may not consider the impact of their words before they speak. "In the moment, their desired objective, whatever that may be, takes such precedence over speaking the truth or behaving honestly that the potential consequences of their conduct are reduced to shadowy details."

Watson addresses the distortion campaign mentioned in the introduction to this essay when he says, "One must not overlook the chronic, vengeful anger simmering beneath this personality's exterior shell which erupts into overt rage with stress. The persistent anger may result in the aggressive use of lies, where hateful rumors are used as weapons to manipulate interpersonal interactions. Additionally, the [person] may use fantasy in an effort to soothe personal self-esteem and communicate their fantasy as real to others to accentuate this effect."

Other reasons for lack of truth-telling:

  • Some statements may start out as deliberate lies; over time, they become real (the old saying, "Tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth").
  • Some statements may be exaggerations, such as a woman accusing her husband of "strangling her" when he touched her neck.
  • People with BPD-especially the conventional type-may judge themselves harshly and expect others to do the same. Lying serves to deflect shame when something might make them look bad, thereby maintaining whatever self-esteem they have on a temporary basis. This backfires on those people with BPD who then feel worse for having lied (or at least being found out).
  • We all have things about ourselves we would prefer others not know. But we see the good and the bad and hope others do, too. With their black and white world and rejection sensitivity, people with BPD believe that anything "bad" would make others reject them.
  • Lies may create drama and gain attention. One woman lied that she had been raped to get her boyfriend's attention when he had not been paying enough attention to her.
  • Lies may mask real feelings and put up an impressive façade; this is especially common with invisible BPs.
  • Lies may help make sense of why things happen to them in their mixed-up identity. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder 

As I said, some lies maintain the facade of the False Self. On a more conscious level, lies are central to:

  • Staying in power and keeping things under control
  • Keeping the flow of narcissistic supply
  • Satisfying the grandiose, entitled self
  • Avoiding any shame if their status is not as high in reality as they think it should be
  • Minimizing the onerous possibility of having to concern himself with your needs.

Just a few examples are the tip of the iceberg.

  • He lied consistently about his earnings even in the face of documentary evidence
  • She told me she had cancer when she didn't
  • He lied consistently for at least a decade regarding fidelity. He used gaslighting techniques to convince me that I was imagining "missing" condoms from packs in our bedroom
  • She denied verbal abuse, telling me that, "I never called you names when anyone else was listening"
  • He refused to say where he was going, where he had been, or when he intended to return home--even when doing so was simply to facilitate normal family life-mealtimes, etc. His most oft-used sentence was "That'll never be known"
  • He lied about his history of dyslexia, even when it would have helped our sons.
  • She said she had a night class when she went to a hotel weekly with another man

Author (Malignant Self Love--Narcissism Revisited) and narcissist Sam Vaknin says:

My biography needs no embellishments. It is chock full of adventures, surprising turns of events, governments and billionaires, prisons and luxury hotels, criminals and ministers, fame and infamy, wealth and bankruptcy. I have lived a hundred lives. All I need to do is tell it straight. And yet I can't.

Moreover, I exaggerate everything. If a newspaper publishes my articles, I describe it as "the most widely circulated", or "the most influential". If I meet someone, I make him out to be "the most powerful", "most enigmatic", "most something".  If I make a promise, I always promise the impossible or undoable. To put it less gently, I lie. Compulsively and needlessly.All the time. About everything. And I often contradict myself. Why do I need to do this?

To make myself interesting or attractive. In other words, to secure narcissistic supply (attention, admiration, adulation, gossip). I refuse to believe that I can be of interest to anyone as I am. My mother was interested in me only when I achieved something. Since then I flaunt my achievements--or invent ones. I feel certain that people are more interested in my fantasies than in me. This way I also avoid the routine, the mundane, the predictable, the boring.

So how can someone do this? Remember, NPs have no empathy. As Vaknin says, they must have narcissistic supply--what's a little lie when your very survival, is at stake? And besides, they think, rules apply to other people. Under these circumstances, telling falsehoods is probably uncomplicated and effortless. Watson says, "Overall, their frank manipulation of others may be part of a 'by hook or by crook; mentality to accomplish their goals."

The Effect on People Around Them

Whether BPD or NPD, conscious or unconscious, the results are the same for those around them:

  • Lies erode trust and intimacy. A man says, I learned never to really trust her. It leaves me feeling very alone in the relationship. I don't trust her about our finances. I don't trust her regarding the parenting of her children. I don't trust her with my heart anymore. I simply don't trust her."
  • Other come to believe the lies told about them. One man went to therapy for years to fix himself until a therapist suggested his wife may have BPD.
  • They confuse and paralyze others around them--gaslighting, especially, can drive others to near insanity. (It is another major topic I will discuss.)
  • It is an understatement to say that people feel betrayed and hurt. Betrayal leads to a lack of trust, which reduces intimacy, which destroys relationships.

Randi Kreger is the co-author of Stop Walking on Eggshells.

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