Occasional dishonesty is natural. But when does lying become a problem? And what makes lying compulsive or pathological?

From little white lies to deliberate omissions, lying can take many forms.

Most people sometimes cover up the truth to protect themselves or another person. But dishonesty can become a serious problem in relationships — especially when it’s frequent or without a clear reason.

It can be frustrating to deal with someone who often hides the truth, and broken bonds of trust can be hard to rebuild. Understanding the different types of lying, and the reasons why people do it, can help you work out the next steps in your relationships.

Most people tell lies occasionally. There are many reasons people might lie, such as:

  • avoiding offending someone they care about
  • protecting themselves from a perceived threat
  • feelings of shame or guilt
  • avoiding conflict or negative emotions
  • acting out of impulse
  • making themselves look better
  • avoiding punishment
  • creating justifications

Someone who lies compulsively or pathologically will lie very often and out of habit, despite not having a good reason for being dishonest.

They may be dishonest about many things, including seemingly unimportant things. It may bring them comfort and security to make things up. These levels of dishonesty can lead to dangerous situations and interfere with the well-being of friends and family.

The term “pathological lying” is often used interchangeably with “compulsive lying,” and there’s no clear clinical difference between the terms. The research suggests that compulsive lying falls under the broader definition of pathological lying, rather than being its own separate phenomenon.

Pathological lying was originally called “pseudologia phantastica,” a term coined by psychiatrist Anton Delbrück in 1891 to describe people who told so many outrageous lies that the behavior was considered to be caused by a mental health condition.

Pathological lying is when someone lies frequently such that it impairs their social, work, financial, or legal functioning. Those who lie pathologically may experience distress because of their lies, and they might have a fear of someone discovering their lies.

Pathological lies represent a trait rather than an impulse. The person may believe that they can’t control their lying behavior. This lying often occurs long-term and can pose a risk to the person and those around them.

Pathological lying is a sign of some mental health conditions, especially personality disorders.

People with certain conditions — including narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder — tend to act in manipulative or deceitful ways regardless of the consequences and upset it might cause.

Lying can be a symptom of some mental health conditions according to a 2021 review, including borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may lie to mask compulsions or stop friends and family from worrying about their behaviors. They might think their friends and loved ones won’t understand, so they aren’t always honest about their experiences.

Those with other mental health conditions may lie to cover up their symptoms or habits, such as people with substance use disorder or impulse control disorders. They may develop elaborate lies to mask their symptoms, particularly when the symptoms are stigmatized in society.

It is important to note that while lying can be a symptom of mental health disorders, it isn’t always the case. Additionally, when lying is associated with conditions, it’s not always pathological. More research is needed in this area to determine the association.

Research indicates pathological lying can occur because of low self-esteem and a false sense of self. People who lie pathologically may want others to view them positively, making things up to make them look better. Their desire to create a false sense of self could indicate that they are unhappy with themselves.

It’s not always easy to tell if someone lies, so you can’t always count on warning signs to enlighten you. Experts have researched the situation, hoping to determine if perceived signs of lying are accurate.

Researchers observed and performed studies to determine if specific signs indicate someone is lying. They looked into things like:

  • hesitations
  • speech disturbances
  • changes in voice pitch or speed
  • filling natural pauses

Their results proved inconclusive, as they showed that it wasn’t possible to accurately confirm the signs of lying. Without further research, assessing behavior this way isn’t a good idea. It could lead to misinterpretation, potentially harming the relationship.

Getting the person into treatment can be problematic. The person may not want to admit they have a problem, meaning they don’t enter into treatment.

If a person experiences dishonesty as a symptom of a mental health condition, receiving treatment can help improve their well-being and relationships. It can also help their friends and loved ones.

Psychiatrists use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose disorders. Pathological and compulsive lying aren’t listed as a disorder, and therefore have no formal treatment protocol.

Psychotherapy or counseling can help the person understand how their lying impacts others. It may help them find ways to rely less on dishonesty and rebuild broken trust, therefore strengthening their relationships.

Research shows that the following types of therapy can also help:

Family support and support groups may also help.

If you live with compulsive or pathological lying habits or know someone who does, it can help to talk with a professional.

If a mental health condition contributes to lying, mental health support will help with other parts of life, too. These conditions affect a person’s well-being, so being diagnosed and starting treatment is important.

Looking for a therapist, but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.