If we are honest with ourselves, we have all done it. We have been dishonest, we have not told the truth, we have lied. If you were asked in a job interview, “When was the last time you lied?” and the answers you could choose from were “this week,” “last month,” “six months ago,” or “I don’t lie,” which would you choose? Those who advocate such a question in an interview would advise not to hire the person who answers, “I don’t lie.” That is the liar’s answer because everyone does.
The truth is that lying is a common occurrence, lies come in a variety of types, and they happen for a variety of reasons. A whole other side to this issue is the experience of being lied to. But first, why do people lie? The various reasons can be broken down into four basic categories.
The first of these has to do with relationship harmony concerns. Some lies are used to avoid being embarrassed, disappointing others, or having the other person think of you in a negative way. A common denominator in these lies is fear of the other’s reaction. Here are some examples:
• Telling someone the project is finished when really you have more work to do and plan to finish it late.
• Not taking responsibility for a mistake but instead blaming someone or something else. For example, saying you were late due to traffic instead of not managing your time well.
• A lie to get out of an awkward social situation. You may say you have other plans when you really don’t want to attend the event
• To maintain privacy when you fear the other will not respect your boundary of not wanting to discuss or disclose information.
The person who lies out of concern for the relationship really does care what the other person thinks about them. In fact, they may care too much. They may fear the other person will not be happy with them and will possibly reject them. Often underlying this are feelings of inadequacy, not believing that others would truly accept them if they knew the truth.
Outcome management is a second category of lies. These lies are told to avoid some negative outcome or consequence. Often these lies involve a fear of punishment. This is common in children but also shows up in adult relationships too. The fear of punishment can be for an honest mistake or a purposeful misdeed. Some people lie to avoid negative consequences in a relationship, such as rejection or even the end of the relationship. Others lie to avoid negative consequences at work, the most extreme of which is fear of being terminated. Still others lie to avoid negative legal consequences — a speeding ticket, for example.
There are times you might argue that lying to protect yourself is a good thing. In truly dangerous situations in which someone intends you harm, lying may be necessary in order to protect yourself. Similarly, not divulging certain information and hiding particular things can be a way to protect yourself from dangerous people. Few would argue against the wisdom of this. At the same time, these situations are not commonplace nor are they the frequent reasons for lying.
Another form of lying for outcome management is lying to obtain a positive outcome. Lying on a resume to get the job would be a common example. Falsely portraying yourself in a favorable light in social situations is another example of this. This type can range from bragging about accomplishments or only telling the positives about a situation all the way to outright fabrication of the facts.
A third category of lies involves avoiding an undesirable truth. A common example of this is the person who has a problem but can’t or won’t admit it. Maybe it’s a drinking problem, and the person lies about the amount and frequency of drinking. Maybe it’s a problem with spending and not being able to live within your means. It could involve not admitting to certain physical symptoms that could indicate a serious health problem. Any type of addiction or compulsive behavior is subject to these types of lies. Underneath, the person is not able or willing to be completely honest with themselves, so they are not honest with others either. In other words, self-deception breeds other deception.
A last category of lies is substantially different from the others. It involves exercising power over another. This is what is commonly referred to as the “Pathological Liar.” Someone who lies for power and control lacks empathy for others and will not feel or demonstrate remorse. In fact, they will go to great lengths to deny lying, even when caught. They will blame others or distort reality. These types of lies are the most dangerous. Pathological lying is usually a symptom of a personality disorder such as Antisocial Personality Disorder (sociopath) or a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. What constitutes such disorders is the pattern and manner in which a person lies. A professional evaluation is necessary to make this determination.
These four categories of reasons for people lying might be thought of as the “proximate cause,” or outward reason. A common denominator underlies all of them: it all boils down to how we view ourselves. To tell the truth, you have to get comfortable with the truth. To be comfortable with the truth, you have to be comfortable with who you are. To be comfortable with who you are, you have to accept that you are flawed … as all people are.
In other words, your sense of self — your self-esteem — has to be rooted in reality. That reality is that you are not perfect and far from it. You have weaknesses that accompany your strengths. In spite of your best efforts, you make mistakes, sometimes big ones. Yet your imperfections and mistakes do not define who you are. The truth is that your value and significance come from your humanity. The fact that you are a human gives you value and dignity. You are a “human being,” not a “human doing.” It is not your behavior, accomplishments, successes, possessions, or status that define you. It is your personhood.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t fully believe this, even though we may give lip service to it. Further, we live in a culture that actively contradicts this. Look at advertising: what you have, what you look like, and what you do defines you. Take social media as another example; a basic underlying theme and motivation for social media has become presenting yourself to be good enough, worthwhile, valuable, and having it all together. Presenting yourself in a favorable way — even if it is not entirely true — has become commonplace.
The opposite of this is also true. Many posting on social media exaggerate (lie) about how bad life is in order to gain sympathy. Another important consideration is the fact that lying is commonplace with children. In young children, it is part of normal development. Children lie, some occasionally, some more frequently. They lie for several reasons. For example, very young children have very active imaginations and can struggle to differentiate truth and reality from fantasy and make believe. They do not naturally have empathy — an understanding of and the ability to take another person’s perspective. They have to mature into this and be taught. Children have significant fear of consequences, punishment, and parental disapproval, so they will frequently lie to avoid these.
Parents should not be shocked or alarmed when their children lie. While it is normal, lying has to be confronted, given consequence, and parented. Children need to be taught to tell the truth, and they need to see their parents model honesty. It is detrimental for a child to be asked to lie for a parent and then be required to tell the truth at other times.
Lastly, lying can become a habit. When it is modeled or reinforced — either through a lack of correction or affirmation — it can become a part of how a person responds in life. When it works, it will be repeated. Through intentional and in-tune parenting, children can be taught to tell the truth.
If you can be honest with yourself for a minute and admit that you lie, anywhere from occasionally to regularly, what can be done about it? Several steps will help you to become a more truthful person. First you need to acknowledge the problem. Is it a habit? Do you lie when you do not need to? Is it primarily fear based? Begin by being more honest with yourself about everything. Then identify the triggers. Ask yourself when it tends to occur, with whom, what you are feeling, and whether any common circumstances lead you to lie? Are you trying to avoid making someone else feel bad or trying to make yourself look better?
Knowing what triggers you to lie can help you have more awareness and be more intentional in such situations. You should practice rigorous honesty, which begins by being rigorously honest with yourself first. Only then can you begin to be more honest with others. Finally, you must work on self-acceptance, which begins with less judgment of self. Many of us are in the habit of evaluating or judging ourselves and everything else in life as either good or bad. Most people and life circumstances are too complex for such categories. Many things “just are” as a combination of positive and negative.
An antidote to lying is to develop a healthier sense of self. As you become more comfortable with who you are, more secure, more accepting, and less judgmental of yourself, it becomes easier to be honest with your own self first and then others second. Activities like mindfulness, living in the present versus living in your past mistakes or a fear of the future, and radical acceptance will all help you in this area. Many articles and books are available to help you in this worthwhile endeavor.
In the opposite case, you may have been hurt, betrayed, or experienced broken trust by another person’s lies. While healing from this is possible, the process takes time. Four principles to guide you through restoring trust with someone who has not been honest include:
• Acceptance. This involves acknow-ledging the betrayal or deception. Further, you have to make a decision not to allow the deception to define the relationship. You hold the door open for repair and reconciliation.
• Assertiveness. This begins with believing that you have the right to address the deception in the relationship and to ask for ownership and responsibility from the other. It is healthy to allow for a process of trust to be rebuilt. To be true to yourself, you can ask for an open and honest relationship. A relationship cannot have a level of closeness that exceeds that trust. In other words, trust is necessary for intimacy.
• Accountability. This is the process in which the one who deceived you exhibits greater openness and accountability to you. When you find the other’s words matched by facts and actions, trust is rebuilt. Genuine remorse in the other is evidenced by a willingness for accountability, a willingness to do what it takes to repair the damage.
• Alternate Choices. Lastly, you leave the door open for you to make alternate choices about the relationship if the lying and deception continue. While this is not the desired outcome, it is dangerous to you to stay relationally connected to someone you cannot trust.
All of us have had the experience of lying to someone and of being lied to. With some self-reflection, steps can be taken to understand why lies happen and to improve our truthfulness. In almost every situation, honesty actually is the best policy.