7 tips to stop you getting caught in your own tangled web
"What's wrong with me? I can never seem to tell the truth: I'm a compulsive liar!"
"Thank you for being honest with me!" (I presumed she was being.)
Turns out Claire had lied since she was little. Recently she'd lied at work, telling everyone she was terminally ill with cancer. She'd got a huge amount of sympathy and attention, not to mention extended time off. Now she'd been found out and fired.
In her time she'd lied about knowing famous people (she didn't), winning money (she hadn't), and not cheating on or having stolen from boyfriends (she had). Now Claire felt she'd burnt all her bridges, friends had fled, and work opportunities dried up. She was desperate to stop compulsively lying and have a fresh start - somewhere new.
So, do you lie?
Compulsive lying and the art of diplomacy
I'm not talking about those everyday little pieces of expediency most of us indulge in:
"How do I look?"
Thinks: "Like a trussed up bag of festering turnips."
Says: "You look fantastic!"
And perhaps the most common lie:
"How are you?"
"Fine." (ready to leap under a tram)
'White lies' smooth life because brutal frankness and long-term friendship make for uneasy bedfellows. Neither am I talking about unconscious dishonesty, 'cognitive dissonance', in which we kid ourselves.
No, I'm talking about compulsive and purposeful lying. The kind that tangles you up and eventually and inevitably gets sussed.
There are things you can do to stop the compulsive liar in you from rearing its ugly head. But first...
What causes compulsive lying?
There are many reasons why someone might compulsively lie. Claire lied to get attention to feel special. She had often lied that she was ill. This is sometimes known as Münchausen syndrome (1), a condition in which the 'sufferer' feigns disease, illness, or injury in order to gain either material advantages or attention from other people. As a child, she felt pushed out on the fold when her younger siblings had come along. She'd started lying to classmates and her parents very early on.
- Because they behave badly but want to still 'look good' - as with the politician who has an affair or cheats on his expense account, then lies in an attempt to cover it up (Westminster, anyone?).
- To genuinely save someone else's feelings.
- To control other people. People may lie about how much power/status they have and then threaten people with that fictitious power and influence.
- For self-aggrandizement in order to make themselves appear wonderful, especially gifted, more interesting, or exciting - either through a sense of inadequacy or overly high self-esteem.
- Through sheer force of habit - "Lying is as easy as breathing for me!"
Because you are reading this, I'm presuming you are sick of compulsively lying. So here are some ideas to help you start being more honest.
1) "To thine own self be true" - regardless of what others are doing
In the recent 'expenses scandal' in the UK, many cheating politicians defended their own public money pocketing by protesting that: "Everyone else had been doing it!" In some ways, lying has become more accepted and even expected.
In a recent survey in the UK, 41% of people said they would cash a winning lottery ticket even if it didn't belong to them and more than two-thirds of people have stolen stationery from work (2).
You know what is honest, so be honest regardless of a dishonest group-think culture - don't hide behind the excuse of widespread lying.
2) Remember the truth is often easier
"Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said." Mark Twain
Lying is a real strain. You have to remember so much and, no matter how elaborate your twisting and turning, you'll eventually come unstuck. As Claire said on one of our sessions, "You know, it's a relief not to lie!"
Cast off lying and you'll find life instantly becomes much less stressful.
3) Know what lying is
It's so easy to lie to ourselves about what lying is. Not telling the truth and remaining silent is a form of lying: 'lying through omission'. In the same way, people may assume that failing to do the right thing is not the same as doing the wrong thing. In one research study in the UK, just 38% of items deliberately left in the street found their way back to their rightful owners (3).
Claire told me that one boyfriend had asked her why she hadn't told him she'd cheated on him. She'd replied: "Because you didn't ask!"
Don't make excuses to yourself. Not telling the truth, when you know what it is, is lying.
4) Stop compulsive lying to protect your reputation (because the truth is out there)
Apart from all the ethical considerations, lying doesn't work - not in the long run. Once you are unmasked as a habitual liar, you've blown it. People will take you far less seriously as a person. Trust may be impossible to ever win back.
As good old 'honest Abe' Lincoln said: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem."
Claire had destroyed the confidence of just about everyone and felt forced to move on to new pastures.
Stop and think: The truth has a way of making itself known, and when you lose people's trust, you lose the power to be heard by other people - because they'll stop listening. (Remember what happened to the boy who cried, "Wolf!")
5) Stop compulsive lying one step at a time
Claire had been lying for decades, all the time, every day. She was good at lying (which hadn't stopped the truth from making itself known to the people in her life).
I asked her to start telling "small truths", being honest here and there when normally she wouldn't be. For example, when she spoke to someone new she was to tell that she had left school and become a hairdresser at 16 instead of her usual story of having picked up a Master's degree in marine biology. She was to tell people her real town of origin and be honest about her parents (dropping the story of being adopted). Bit by bit, I encouraged her to start to tell small truths so truth telling, in itself, could become a habit.
Start by promising to yourself you'll tell people three true things about yourself a day.
6) Stop compulsive lying by meeting your emotional needs honestly
Much human behaviour is unconsciously motivated by the need to meet emotional needs. We all have needs for a sense of safety and security, attention, status, meaning, excitement, intimacy and love, connection to others, self-esteem, and so forth. Now think about times when you've compulsively lied; times when the lies seemed to 'come from nowhere'.
What was the drive behind the lying? Wanting to be included? Wanting to be thought highly of? Wanting to be loved, even? Wanting excitement? Really think about this.
Lying to get your life needs met is a form of stealing. Wanting to gain love, respect from others, or self-esteem without putting in real efforts is theft in a way.
Think about some real ways in which you can honestly meet these needs for self-importance, security, or whatever drive had been behind your lying. And make these the base from which you interact with others.
7) Use self-hypnosis to stop compulsive lying
For Claire, lying had come to feel a part of who she was; she called it "instinctive". We worked hypnotically to great effect. I got her to hypnotically experience a type of situation in which she'd be typically tempted to tell a whopper and I helped her mentally rehearse telling the truth regardless of whether it was less "colourful" or exciting. Each time she did this, she felt an enormous flood of relief and felt closer to the person with whom she was communicating.
To get a sense of this exercise, click on the free audio link below.
Claire emailed me months later to tell me that her new "real" life was going well and that "90% of the time I'm telling the truth and I'm getting more honest all the time; it feels natural now."
Of course, she could have been lying to me, but I chose to believe her.