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Are You a Liar or a Truth-Teller?

Personal Perspective: Why do people lie?

Key points

  • Lying can be a way to tell people what they want to hear.
  • There's a range from harmless white lies to destructive lying.
  • While people lie for different reasons, they can share some common attributes.
Paul Ross, used with permission
Cracks in the vessel of truth
Source: Paul Ross, used with permission

It would be easy to say that lying is bad and truth-telling is good, but in my experience, that’s very simplistic. It’s not about good people and bad people, but rather about behaviors that may be destructive or self-destructive, or both.

I remember well my first experience with lying—in the person of my mother. I believed everything she said, until I was old enough to become a fact-checker. “Ma, why did you tell X what I told you in confidence?” “I did not.” “He told me you did.” “I don’t know what he’s talking about. “Okay, let me get him on the phone right now, and we can clear this up.” What followed were threats, diversions, anything but the willingness to face the truth.

After my upbringing, I became very sensitized to lying. I could spot a liar a mile away, except when I married one. He lied about where he was going, who he was with, how things were going for him in school, at work, his adultery, and just about everything else. He became outraged if I accused him of lying. It only ceased to bother me when I got a divorce and never saw him again.

When I began traveling and living abroad, I found that lying cut across all cultures, ages, professions, religions, economic situations. And most of the liars I met were very good at it. They didn’t have shifty eyes or sputter or speed up when they spoke. The lying machines were always greased up and ready to go.

I began to ask people, gently, in an unthreatening manner, why they lied. Sometimes their answers were lies, so it was hard to get below the surface.

Why people might lie

I do not pretend to be a prevarication expert, but this is what I have discovered about liars.

1. They tell white lies — like saying they like your new haircut or think a baby is beautiful. It doesn’t hurt someone to receive a compliment, and in most cases, it’s not a big deal. It gets more complicated when they lead a client on, tell a patient a half-truth, or keep a serious illness a secret from loved ones. Many times, the intention is good, even if the long-term effect isn’t.

2. The liar is ashamed — of ditching school, getting into trouble, failing at something, forgetting a meeting or appointment, incurring debt, being a sucker, being perceived as weak, stealing, or making a mistake. Sometimes the lies are the “cat ate my homework"; other times, the stories are elaborate and lengthy. And the more the liar has lied, the easier it becomes to convince anyone of anything. Except for those who see through the lies. When confronted about their lying, some liars weep; some feel ashamed; some stick by their stories and even double down; some are relieved to tell the truth. In most cases, they lie to tell you what you want to hear.

3. Liars live a lie with those they love. They are having an affair, secretly supporting another household, “going to work” when there is no longer a job, working at a job they are ashamed of, cheating you, engaged in criminal activity, or in the throes of addiction. I have met people in all of the above categories, as well as people who have suffered in relationships with these liars. When confronted, they deny vehemently that they are lying. They may even get aggressive and start accusing you or stomp away in anger. They have counted on your innocence and trusting nature and have betrayed you.

What complicates the picture is that some of them want to get caught because the lies are weighing on them, or you know they are lying but choose to close your eyes or forgive them and believe them when they say they won’t do it again. You may be afraid they will leave you, or you will have to leave them.

Lying is a habit. It’s not easy to break. Liars I have met rarely go cold turkey and turn into models of honesty.

4. They believe their own lies. They have convinced themselves that what they are saying actually happened or will happen. They are not happy people. The ones I have met are dissatisfied with themselves and create a parallel reality to present to others. In the alternate universe, they are cool, caring, collaborative, strong, unwilling to ask for or get help. They have it all together. They are winners.

Or they are victims and nothing is their fault. They wear you down, and you end up either giving in, giving up, or not giving a damn. I have known two cases when a real threat to their life (emotionally, physically, or financially) caused them to take off the mask and start learning to deal with and tell the truth. It is not immediate, but it may be sincere and lasting. And it may be partial because that’s all the reality the prevaricator can tolerate.

5. Liars enjoy manipulating and jerking you around and derive cruel satisfaction from of this power over you. It makes them feel potent and strong. They are very damaged inside, but they hide behind layers and layers of false bravado. The sad part is that they get away with it some of the time, but other times, people will cut off relationships with them, denounce them, reject them, and leave them to be the lonely people they really are.

If you’re in a relationship with a liar, there is no easy solution, but I can at least reassure you that you are not alone. Many share your dilemma, and you will eventually find your own resolution. And if you are a liar yourself, are you ready to take a look at it?

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