Do you know people who engage in telling multiple lies, even when you or someone else has caught them? Do you know someone who seems to manipulate others with his or her lies? If so, this article is for you.
As a therapist working with children and adolescents, I have seen my fair share of lies and juvenile-delinquent behaviors, which include pathological lies. Although we have all told a “while lie” or two, or minimized a situation to keep the peace, pathological liars lie for the simple fact of pleasure, manipulation, or to get what they want. To make matters worse, some pathologically lie for no apparent reason. Sadly, mental health professionals are largely uninformed about this insidious and evil behavior. We lack research and knowledge about pathological lying and have been unable, for centuries, to explain why it happens and how it develops.
As a result, society remains very uninformed about pathological lying and is often shocked when someone close (a family member, friend, co-worker, etc.) begins sharing their lies and untruths.
This article will highlight some of the common behaviors of pathological liars. I will also explain triangulation.
Triangulation can be defined as any behavior that misleads, confuses, or damages the relationship between the communicator and more than one other person. In other words, triangulation is a tactic someone may use to control, manipulate, misinform, or deceive. The interaction typically includes two or more people. As discussed in a previous article, triangulation is not always an intentional behavior.
Sometimes triangulation occurs because of misinformation, rumors, or confusion. But in the lives of pathological liars, triangulation is likely to be a tool to keep confusion going. Pathological liars are difficult to deal with because they often use (sometimes unintentionally) a variety of tactics to keep us all confused. These tactics include:
- Listening to respond: Have you ever argued with a person who seems to completely dismiss or not hear everything you are trying to get across? Have you ever asked during a confrontation or heated discussion “did you hear anything I just said?” If so, you are dealing with a person who simply will not (and in some cases cannot) hear you. The person is so bent on getting you to see his (or her) point of view that he fails to pay attention to ways the both of you can civilly discuss the problem. A person who listens to respond will most likely not hear anything you are saying while simultaneously trying, very hard, to get you to hear him out. A pathological or manipulative person doesn’t care about what you have to say. He wants to get you to see his side and his side only.
- Using emotions to control: Histrionic personality traits are traits I have seen about four times out of the eight years I have worked in the field of psychology/behavioral health. Histrionic personality traits can include the following: exaggerated claims, exaggerated tone of voice and actions, theatrical tones of voice or behaviors, rapid change of vocal tones, dramatic expressions, and seductive behaviors. It can be very difficult to identify a histrionic personality because of co-occurring disorders (i.e., bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder, etc) and even environmental influences (i.e., how the person was raised, role models or adult influences, etc). But you will notice, when speaking with a person who pathologically lies, that he will sometimes use exaggerated emotions to distract or appear as the victim. It’s simply manipulative.
- Claiming an “illness” – medical or mental: It may appear, at times, that the person who engages in pathological lying also complains about mental or medical ailments, perhaps to gain attention. Some of my previous clients, who were living with a pathological liar, would report the person complaining of various ailments such as tension headaches, nausea, joint pain, or mental health symptoms, such as suicidal thoughts or self-injurious behaviors. Hypochondriasis may also be evident in a relationship with someone who repeatedly lies.
- Studying others and anticipating certain reactions: I once counseled a teenager, age 17, who was very, very skilled at getting social cues and being sarcastic. He had a way that he would create a discussion (among his friends or family, sometimes even his teachers) and once everyone would become emotionally charged or hyper-focused on the topic, he would “back out.” He would then watch reactions, changes in emotions, and listen for cues of anger. He was “studying” his family and social group. When he wanted something such as a girlfriend or a car, he would know what buttons to push and how. His parents began to refer to him as a “sociopathic liar” and told me, “when his lips move, he is lying.”
- Rehearsing their lines: It has been long thought that if a person is calm they are typically telling the truth because there would be nothing to get upset about if you are not guilty. But research has found that the calmer the person, the higher the probability that the person is lying. Why? Because when you “rehearse” what you are going to say and the arguments you are going to use, you are calm.
- Manipulating others into “playing” roles: Triangulation creates three kinds of roles: victim (“poor me”), persecutor (“it’s all your fault”), and rescuer (“help me”). A manipulative person knows exactly how to push people into such roles often creating chaos and mistrust among the victims. Sadly, these roles are often found in the therapist-client relationship of someone with a personality disorder such as anti-social personality disorder (“sociopathy”) and borderline personality disorder. Not all individuals with BPD manipulate others (although there are some who will – intentionally and unintentionally). But triangulation is something that may occur if a therapist wants to speak to the person’s family or previous mental health providers. I once had a neighbor, while in college, who was in therapy for BPD and would intentionally keep her therapist confused because “he doesn’t need to know the real me.”
- Being seductive: Manipulators are really good at being seductive, especially if they are physically attractive or have some kind of “prestige.” Pathological liars will often use seductive behavior to draw in their prey. Consider the example of someone who is having an affair. They are really good at making their prey feel loved, needed, and wanted only to later reveal that they never really loved them.
- Exaggerating minor details to distract: Individual who are skilled at manipulation and pathological lying will often exaggerate minor details to distract your attention away from the elephant in the room. They may also overreact when confronted about minor things.
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All the best