Dr. Tarra Bates-Duford
Compulsive Liar vs. Pathological Liar
Often the terms compulsive and pathological liars are used synonymously or interchangeably, however, there are very distinct differences between the two. A compulsive liar is defined as someone who lies out of habit. As reflected in the name alone, compulsive liars lie impulsively. For compulsive liars, lying has become a normal and reflexive way of responding to questions. Compulsive liars tend to bend, distort, or “sprinkle” small seeds of truth into an otherwise large field of lies. Those that lie compulsively exhibit a marked difficulty with telling the truth and behaving transparently. A compulsive liar is someone who has little or no control over the lies he or she tells. Lying, for them, is habitual and constant. They may lie about anything and in any situation. They lie to avoid the truth, perhaps because they find telling the truth uncomfortable. Compulsive liars usually feel uncomfortable about lying yet feel compelled to do so, the lie and or deception begins to feel “normal”. Most people begin the uncomfortable and dangerous practice of compulsive lying early childhood, making it a natural coping mechanism for discomfort, inflating their sense of self-worth, etc., in adulthood. It should be noted, compulsive liars are not overly manipulative, deceptive, or cunning like pathological liars as they lie out of habit rather than malice.
Unlike compulsive liars, pathological liars tend to be more deceptive, intentional, crafty, manipulative, self-serving, etc., when they lie. Pathological liars typically engage in deceptive language for their own personal gain, as their interests and needs are the only interests and needs of importance to them. They lie for personal gain and they see nothing wrong with their actions. Pathological liars know how to manipulate those around them so that they can get what they want. The primary purpose of lying for pathological liars include getting their needs and interests met without regard for the feelings and well-being of others. Pathological liars create an alternate reality for themselves to inhabit. They believe in their lies and become unable to separate their lies from the truth. This means they have no problem lying brazenly about apparent episodes in their lives in order to gain attention or admiration. They will lie to close friends, family members, as no one is off limits or free from their deceptive behavior. Lying is not a coping mechanism, lying does not occur when they are feeling overwhelmed, put on the spot, etc., lying occurs because they hope to gain something from the lie. Pathological liars do not feel compelled to lie, or lie impulsively, they lie because they have made a conscious choice to deceive the other person. They know that they are lying and it does not bother them in the slightest. Interestingly, a pathological liar lies so much and so often that they often begin to believe their own lies. It is important to note that the main contrast between a pathological liar and a compulsive liar is that a compulsive liar is usually very remorseful and knows what they are doing is wrong.
There are very distinct differences between pathological and compulsive liars, i.e., people who lie pathologically lie with the intent to deceive or manipulate others, people who lie compulsively do so to reduce feelings of inadequacies, feeling overwhelmed, or heighten their self-worth. The two conditions are often confused with one another or seen as interchangeable, but, importantly, there are significant differences in motivation and practice. Compulsive liars and pathological liars both lie frequently, but they do so for different reasons and pose different problems for those with whom they have contact.
Anna is a 25-year-old single female that lives alone. Anna recently broke up with her boyfriend 2 months, however, she continues to lead her friends into believing she is still in a romantic relationship. Although, she has not verbally stated to her friends she is still in a romantic relationship, she has lied my omission when questioned. When questioned about her “boyfriend” Tom’s whereabouts she states he is working, spending time with family, or otherwise unavailable rather than being honest with her friends about breaking up. When initially “put on the spot” by her friends about Tom’s absence from recent group events Anna insisted he was too busy to attend. Is Anna a compulsive or pathological liar?