In my work as a therapist, I find that lying — to oneself and to loved ones — is a major obstacle to change. For many, the advice “just tell the truth” misses the myriad causes of lying and the skill set necessary to tell the truth even when the stakes are high.
Why We Lie
The most foundational motivation for lying is hiding some unpleasant truth. When we do the same trick in our own heads, we call it denial. In both cases, there’s almost always fear or shame involved. We also lie when we feel unsafe: when we’ll be ridiculed, exiled, or persecuted for what we are or what we’ve done. Sometimes this fear is well-grounded. When a parent asks me “why did my child lie to me?”, I often explore how intense the parent’s response will be. When the price of truth becomes too high, anyone is capable of lying.
Lying is a strategy for “having your cake and eating it too.” For the person who wants a stable marriage but also the excitement of an affair, lying becomes part of the price of admission for maintaining an acceptable public face while indulging socially-unacceptable desires.
In a similar vein, liars often rationalize their deception by appealing to privacy, usually to defend a second, “shadow” life. The main difference between preserving privacy and keeping up a false front is that what is rightfully private has no direct impact on anyone else. Furthermore, people can honestly assert authentic privacy by saying “that’s personal,” and leaving it at that rather than concocting a cover story.
“The truth hurts,” is often cited as a rationalization for lying. In his or her own mind, the liar transforms himself from a villain into a hero by defending others from the unbearable truth. Of course this internal lie neglects the cost of leaving others ignorant to important facts; nor does it account for the additional damage when the truth finally comes out.
For some, the “eleventh commandment” reads “don’t get caught.” People with narcissistic or sociopathic tendencies often believe that while what they did may have been wrong, the penalty is seen as so unfair or outrageous that they feel justified in lying to avoid consequences.
Occasionally, lying is less about protecting the self and more about attacking and controlling others. Expert liars can derive a dark pleasure from fooling their victims, muddying the truth, and sowing seeds of uncertainty and confusion.
Implementing the Policy of Truth
“Just tell the truth!”
If only it were that easy.
A sincere desire to tell the truth is a necessary but far from sufficient condition to stop the lies and begin living an honest life. Even understanding the payoffs and motivations for lying described above is only a preliminary step. Honesty is a skill and like most skills, it requires not only practice, but also effective techniques.
Knowing “the why of the lie” is a good first step. This insight opens the door to questioning whether lying is really all it’s cracked up to be. When people lie for a long time, they lose track of how stressful and mentally taxing it is to keep up their cover story. The latest brain scans demonstrate that the lying brain is working much harder than the truthful brain. It’s difficult to overstate the level of relief I’ve witnessed when my clients come clean about a longstanding deception.
People living a double life often describe “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” While they sometimes convince themselves they can keep the charade going indefinitely, another part of them is wound up in fear of eventual discovery.
Shame is another tax on the mind of the habitual liar. Even if the liar thinks he has everyone else snowed, the gap between perception and reality inevitably drives a wedge between the liar and those who would otherwise be the closest to them.
Liars who have lied for long enough often lose touch with what it is truly like to live in the truth. They also may have unrealistic impressions of how much hurt revealing the truth will incur. More often than not, the people the liar seeks to deceive already know the truth or at least feel in their gut that something is not right. In reality, they may be defending an illusion that no one believes. Others are simply avoiding saying what they already know. Sometimes a lie is more like an agreement between the liar who tells the lie and the hearer who suspends disbelief. In this case, when the truth is revealed, everyone gets to take a deep breath and say “we always knew.”
One of the toughest processes my clients go through is the transition from living a secret life to living an honest one. The trouble is that when they lived a double life, they professed their integrity even though it was a sham. Now that they’re actually doing the right thing, their cover story becomes the truth. For those who have been hurt by the lies, it’s hard to believe the old lie is the new truth. Sometimes it’s almost as if they have to “pay down the debt” on their lies. Yet I’ve also seen some amazing turnarounds where a lie was found out, and the liar made a solid effort to live authentically. Somehow those around him knew — without being able to say why — that this change had been real.
As often as not, people lie not by what they say, but by what they neglect to say. These lies of omission are every bit as hurtful as lies of commission, yet are often much harder for the liar to acknowledge. Lying by omission can become habitual, and the only sure remedy is to practice the opposite habit of living transparently, making full and continuous disclosures to those who matter in our lives.
The most powerful cure for lying is not about communication at all, but about how we choose our actions. Years ago, local radio personality Royal Marshall was asked if he was more honest now than in the past. His response was telling. He said, in effect, that he told the truth more often not because he revealed his failures more often, but rather because he lived his life in a way that made lying less attractive.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by