For better or worse, lying is a universal human experience.
Maybe you tell a friend that you like their haircut. (In reality you don’t, but what’s the point of hurting their feelings?)
Maybe you told a prospective boss that the role you’re interviewing for is your dream job when it definitely isn’t. (Hey, you need a job.)
Maybe you told a friend that you’d be at the restaurant in 15 minutes when you hadn’t even left your house yet—and you’re 20 minutes away, at best. (You don’t want them to be annoyed.)
Or maybe your lies are bolder. You told someone on a business trip that you’re single, but you’re married. Or you lied to cover up something at work in an attempt to avoid disciplinary action. Perhaps you’ve completely made up something about your past—where you lived, where you’ve worked, where you went to school.
The point is, lying can take many forms, and there can be a variety of reasons, big and small, why someone might stray from the truth.
But how do you know if your lying is compulsive? And if lying feels compulsive to you—if you feel a strong underlying urge to stretch the truth, whether for your personal benefit or without much reason at all—does that mean you have a mental health problem? In this article, we’ll dive into those questions, plus provide advice for finding help.
What is compulsive lying?
Compulsive lying is completely different than telling a one-off lie or a white lie. It’s done with regularity and there’s a sense of a loss of control around it. Compulsive lying is also called pathological lying or pseudologia phantastica/fantastica.
Lying in itself is “normal psychological behavior,” as research puts it. You might let a lie slip out because you are feeling ashamed or guilty about something or because you just don’t want to ruffle any feathers.
Where compulsive lying deviates from traditional lying is in the stories that are told. A compulsive liar will weave these impressive, fantastical tales that are designed to be impressive, according to research. The problem is that people are naturally curious and will chime in with questions of their own, so the person telling the story will have to add on to it—and remember all the details of their lies along the way. That can become difficult to keep organized, and the situations that grow out of a compulsive lie can quickly cause the lie to spiral out of control.
Compulsive lying is not a recognized psychological disorder. But it may be relatively common. In a study on 623 people, in which researchers asked participants about their lying behavior, 13% identified as pathological liars.
In the study, a pathological liar was defined as or had the following qualities:
- Someone who tells numerous lies each day.
- Has been lying for at least six months.
- The lies were considered compulsive.
- More lies grew from the initial lie.
- Lying was done for no reason.
Compulsive lying may feel like it serves the person (Notoriety, popularity, social attention), but those who did it also experienced more psychological distress, felt that the lying impaired their ability to function in social or work situations, and believed that their behavior posed a risk to themselves or others.
Causes of compulsive lying
While more research on this type of lying needs to be done, there are certain mental health disorders that may be associated with lying, according to a 2022 review in the journal EC Psychology and Psychiatry:
- Antisocial personality disorder (lies for manipulation or for fun)
- Borderline personality disorder (experiences mood instability and problems with emotional stability)
- Confabulation (a disorder where people develop false memories but do so without the intention of lying, per StatPearls)
- Factitious disorder (in which someone intentionally causes physical or psychiatric symptoms of an illness in order to receive medical care and attention; someone can both do this to themselves or others, according to Cleveland Clinic. This used to be referred to as Munchausen’s syndrome.)
- Malingering (Making up or exaggerating an illness for your own benefit, such as to get out of work. This is not considered a mental health disorder.)
- Narcissistic personality disorder (lying is done out of self-importance.)
According to the study above, there are few risk factors of compulsive lying:
- History of brain disorder
- Trauma (The review above calls this a “chaotic” home environment).
- Young adulthood; compulsive lying often arises around age 21.
Does OCD cause compulsive lying?
- Obsessions: Unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, sensations or urges. These provoke anxiety and distress.
- Compulsions: Behaviors done to get rid of the obsessions. These behaviors can be both mental (such as counting or repeating phrases in your head) or physical (such as checking or tapping).
You may notice one obvious similarity between compulsive lying and obsessive-compulsive disorder—and that’s the fact that they both contain the word “compulsive.” It’s easy to make connections between the two because they may sound similar.
But that’s an incorrect assumption. “Sometimes there is a misuse of the term ‘compulsive,’’’ says Patrick McGrath, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. “But compulsive lying is not OCD. A compulsion only occurs within OCD as a response to an obsession. That’s why when we say ‘compulsive lying’ we have to recognize the broad spectrum of lying and broad reasoning of why we lie. Just because we say ‘compulsive’ doesn’t mean it’s OCD, ” he explains. In fact, it’s more likely that someone with OCD fears that they may be a compulsive liar, because lying goes against their strong sense of values and identity.
There is one way that OCD may feature lying, however: lying in order to hide your compulsions out of embarrassment, Dr. McGrath says. There are so many types of compulsions, some of which are easier to hide than others. For example, mental compulsions can include, among others:
- Thought neutralization or cancellation
These are done internally. And while someone on the outside may be able to “see your wheels spinning” in your head, they won’t necessarily know exactly what you’re doing. Physical compulsions are different. They serve the same purpose but are visible to others. For example:
- Hand washing
- Arranging items in a “perfect” way
If a family member or friend asks you what’s going on or why you’re washing your hands three times before coming to dinner or why you had to slam your car door shut repeatedly until you got it “right,” then you might not want to open up to them and explain why, so you tell a lie about how your hands were extra sticky or the door seemed to have something wrong with it.
In this instance, you won’t be telling just one lie. Compulsions aren’t usually done just one time—most often, they’re done again and again, sometimes according to increasingly rigid rules, as they only get rid of the distress associated with an obsession temporarily. Soon, the obsession will be triggered again, and you’ll feel as if you have to perform the compulsion in order to feel better.
This might also happen with disorders related to OCD, such as trichotillomania (hair pulling) or dermatillomania (skin picking)—you might lie about why you have an injury on your skin or try to cover up a bald patch on your scalp from pulling.
“OCD is powerful, and it doesn’t want you to give up your compulsions,” says Dr. McGrath. Because of that, your OCD will push you to do whatever it takes to keep it around. If that includes lying so that you can hide it and avoid getting help from family and friends, then that’s what it’s going to do. “There’s a fear that if you give up your compulsions, potential bad things will happen,” he says.
While this type of lying to cover up your OCD might occur multiple times per day, it can differ from compulsive lying in a key way: You’re not lying to tell some impressive story. Rather, you’re lying to gloss over a problem that your OCD is telling you to keep quiet.
Again, that’s why it’s important to assess exactly why you might be repeatedly lying. That’s how you can understand the source of the problem and where you can go for help.
Help for compulsive lying
Compulsive lying doesn’t have a specific treatment because it’s not considered a mental health condition on its own. Rather, the underlying reason behind the lying will guide the appropriate treatment.
For example, if you are diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the mainstay of treatment is psychotherapy, or talk therapy done one-on-one with a therapist or in a group, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
OCD, on the other hand, does not benefit from talk therapy, says Dr. McGrath. Rather, the gold standard treatment for OCD is called Exposure and Response Prevention therapy, or ERP. This is a specific form of therapy developed for OCD, in which a specialty-trained clinician will help you trigger an obsession, and you will then commit to sitting with the discomfort without engaging in compulsions for short-term relief. While you may experience a lot of distress in the moment, your body and brain will slowly learn that you can handle these feelings without relying on compulsions that only make your obsessions worse. Within 12 to 20 sessions in average, you’ll start to see significant results, with an increased tolerance for discomfort and reduced distress when obsessions are triggered. OCD is a chronic condition, but by developing the right tools, you can learn to manage it long-term.
As difficult as it can be to open up and stop lying about your OCD, it’s worth it in the end. Dr. McGrath urges you to consider how you want to live: “Isn’t it better to address the OCD so that you can be honest with friends and family, and then build a support system around you where these people can help you overcome OCD—and not just being ruled by your lies?” It can be tough to stop lying and face your OCD head-on, so an initial step can be to open up about these lies to one trusted person in your life.
Where to start
If you don’t know where to start, you can connect with a therapist to talk about your concerns about compulsive lying. There, they can provide insight as to what steps to take next and, given symptoms of other psychological disorders, if you should be evaluated.
For compulsive lying alone, psychology professors on the American Psychological Association’s podcast Speaking of Psychology suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy would be an effective treatment. One such technique used might actually be Habit Reversal Training—a highly effective treatment for tic disorders—where you learn how to stop the knee-jerk reaction to lie, and instead tell the truth. Group therapy can also be helpful, because your fellow peers can hold you accountable for dishonest behavior.
If you have OCD or an OCD-related disorder, the licensed therapists at NOCD are here to help. To learn about how virtual one-on-one, face-to-face sessions of ERP therapy might be able to treat your OCD, schedule a free 15-minute call with NOCD.