Why do we lie? Sometimes, it helps us deal with or escape a situation, and often, it’s to protect ourselves and our vulnerabilities. But what happens when the lying becomes habitual, chronic, and rationally unhinged? That’s when you know you’ve spotted a compulsive liar vs. pathological liar.
Society and all of us accept and indulge in the occasional white lie, meaning the one with which we mean no harm. But some lies can be harmful, destructive, and out of control. This is known as compulsive and pathological lying.
These kinds of lying take the act to an extreme level, which negatively affects the relationship between the liar and the victim and the victim’s integrity.
So, what makes one leap from white lies to compulsive or pathological lying? Let’s find out.
What is a compulsive liar vs. a pathological liar?
You might be suspicious of someone’s behaviour because you feel they’ve been lying to you. It is important to understand what kind of a liar you are dealing with.
You might be dealing with a compulsive liar if:
- They lie about small and insignificant things such as what they’ve been up to today, some wild travel experiences, or owning certain things.
- Their lies and stories are more on-the-spot than planned and elaborate ones.
- If you confront them, they sometimes don’t even realize they are lying.
In the case of a pathological liar, a pattern you might notice is that:
- Their lies and stories are really detailed, grand in a way, with a lot of focus on them being the hero or the victim.
- They seem to have a clear objective behind lying- they’re either trying to manipulate your perspective or gain some advantage.
- It’s difficult to question them and catch them in the lie because of how consistent and convicted they are with it.
While at the end of the day, both kinds of lies and liars can cause you hurt and distress, the degree of dishonesty differs.
Difference between compulsive liars vs. pathological liars
There are some fundamental differences between compulsive liars and pathological liars. Some questions you can reflect on to help you distinguish between them are:
- Are they lying with an intention?
Compulsive liars often lie without any clear purpose. Their lying is a coping mechanism and has become a habitual way for them to deal with any kind of stress or discomfort. Their lies are random and spontaneous and sometimes don’t even make sense.
On the other hand, pathological liars lie with a very clear objective, which is to manipulate you, create a false image of them, or take accountability for their behaviour.
- Are they aware of their lying and its impact?
If you catch them in a lie and confront them, and they don’t even realize they were lying in the first place, then they’re most probably a compulsive liar. You might even observe that they just don’t realize the impact of their lies.
However, it’s the complete opposite for pathological liars. They lie specifically because they know they can and want to manipulate and deceive you in some way.
- How complex are their lies, and how consistently do they hold them up?
Because their lies are simpler, random and intent-less, compulsive liars often forget about what they had said and even contradict themselves.
Pathological liars cover all their bases when it comes to planning the details of their lies. They ensure that they have an answer for any confrontation by you, and they will consistently repeat their lie to make it more believable.
Similarities between compulsive liars vs. pathological liars
The root of both compulsive and pathological lying is a maladaptive way of coping with situations. Some ways in which both these kinds of lying are similar are:
- They both cause distrust in you as the victim of those lies: Their dishonesty makes you feel like you can never take their words at face value and believe them. As more people realize their lying tendencies, they might create distance from the liar.
- They want to appear as a better version of themselves with their lies: They struggle with their self-esteem, so they aim to distort the perception of others with their lies. And this is a vicious cycle. Their insecurities make them lie, and the more they lie, the further their sense of self is damaged.
- They’re both manifestations of psychological conditions and disorders: Compulsive lying is linked to impulse control disorders, anxiety, and certain personality disorders. Pathological lying is associated with narcissistic, antisocial, and histrionic personality disorders. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been proven effective in working through both these conditions.
How to detect compulsive liars vs. pathological liars?
Whether compulsive or pathological, each form of lying has its own challenges in being able to identify them.
If you’re dealing with a compulsive liar, you can look out for the inconsistencies in their stories that make them not line up. You can even nudge them to recall their past stories since they might probably forget their previous lies.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the subject of their lie will be trivial and not very significant. You might not be able to pinpoint a specific reason behind the lie because there might not be one.
If they’re showing physical signs of nervousness while lying, fidgeting or not making eye contact, then it’s clear that they’re a compulsive liar.
In case you’re dealing with a pathological liar, your first sign to identify them is the fact that their stories and lies are highly consistent and elaborate. Everything eerily lines up.
Based on your personal experience with them and the situation, what sort of advantage might they be trying to get through their lie? Try to assess what their motive could be because they’ll have one.
You might always find them exaggerating their stories. And when you catch them in a lie, they might not show any guilt for what they’ve done. If you notice any of these signs, you might be dealing with a pathological liar.
An occasional white lie is not harmful, but chronic lying can affect your relationship and mental wellbeing to a great extent. If you’re dealing with a compulsive liar, remember that they’re lying out of habit and have no purpose behind it. Whereas if you’re dealing with a pathological liar, they’re most likely trying to deceit you in some way.
It is possible to identify their lies with a strategic approach, such as observation and verification of what they say. If the lying is causing immense distress to you, you must seek the support of a mental health professional. At United We Care, we offer the most appropriate, clinically backed solutions for all your wellbeing needs.
 “Compulsive Lying,” Good Therapy. [Online] Available: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/compulsive-lying [Accessed: 28 Oct, 2023]
 Hare, R.D., Forth, A.E., Hart, S.D. (1989). The Psychopath as Prototype for Pathological Lying and Deception. In: Yuille, J.C. (eds) Credibility Assessment. Nato Science, vol 47. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-015-7856-1_2 [Accessed: 28 Oct, 2023]
 Drew A. Curtis, Ph.D., and Christian L. Hart, Ph.D., “Pathological Lying: Psychotherapists’ Experiences and Ability to Diagnose,” The American Journal of Psychotherapy. [Online] Available: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.20210006 [Accessed: 28 Oct, 2023]