In 1997’s Liar Liar, Jim Carrey played Fletcher Reede, a silver-tongued attorney who built a career through lying. While seemingly advantageous for work, his habitual lying constantly disappoints his son Max. When Reede broke his promise and failed to show up for his birthday, Max made a wish that his father won’t be able to tell a lie for a day. Through the karmic powers of the universe, his wish is granted with unhilarious results. Of course by the end of the film, Reede realises the error of his ways, and turns over a new leaf. If only real life were that simple.

To understand the minds of compulsive liars like Reede, we first need to differentiate them from sociopathic liars.

The term “sociopath” (not to be confused with “psychopath”) refers to a goal-oriented individual who has little regard for the feelings of others, and lies incessantly to attain what they want. They are often charming and particularly talented at manipulating others. Last year, a woman fell prey to one such sociopath and ended up being swindled of $1.7 million in one of the biggest scams the Singapore police has ever seen.

On the other hand, compulsive liars are individuals who simply lie out of habit. It comes second nature to them, and in fact, it is difficult and uncomfortable for them to tell the truth. According to Charles Ford, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, “words seem to flow out of their mouths without them thinking about it.” Some of them lie about small things, such as what they had for lunch, while others are more adventurous, waxing lyrical about the fictitious accomplishments or holidays.

Robert Reich, MD, an expert in psychopathology based in New York, says that the phenomenon has to do with self-esteem. “You want to be like someone else because you aren’t very happy with yourself,” he says.
This supports the theory that compulsive lying is developed while a person is growing up. One compulsive liar shares that her lies are fabricated from her daydreams, where she can control who she is, and what happens to her.
For the most part, compulsive liars are not manipulative like sociopaths, but that doesn’t make their habit any less destructive. The same individual in the example above shares that she distances herself, physically and emotionally, from others to prevent herself from lying to them. She believes her constant lying has contributed to her depression.

Unfortunately, life isn’t like the movie, and a child’s fervent wish isn’t going to fix the problem. Clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone PhD, says compulsive liars need to stop listening to the ‘critical inner voice’ that tells them they need to say the right things in order to be accepted. “By getting to know this inner critic, you can separate it from your real point-of-view and act against it,” she says.

But that’s just the easy part. The tougher bit is getting liars to admit they have a problem in the first place. As grim as it sounds, that often requires them to hit rock bottom first.

Cover image: Getty Images

This article was first published in the March ’17 issue of AUGUSTMAN.

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