Letters, we get letters

Readers respond to Cary Tennis' advice to a compulsive liar.

Published November 27, 2001 8:29PM (EST)

I feel lucky to have such smart and interesting readers. I could make whole columns out of nothing but letters about other letters. For instance, a few weeks ago I ran a letter from Verbal Diarrhea-ite, who couldn't stop lying. I rhapsodized moronically about how interesting reality is if you give it a chance. That was probably no help at all.

But a reader has come to the rescue. Here is her personal five-step plan for overcoming compulsive lying:

Dear Verbal Diarrhea-ite:

I have also suffered from compulsive lying. I embroidered stories and facts almost without noticing. It led me into both embarrassment and behavior that I was later ashamed of. I want to tell you what I did about it in case my method is of any use to you. What I did is as follows and is based loosely on aversion therapy. It trained me to care about the truth and to find it more interesting. It also got me into the habit of telling the truth.

1. Found someone I saw a lot of and trusted. (Seeing a lot of them is important.) In my case this was the man I am now married to.

2. Explained my problem and that I wanted to stop it. Asked for their help.

3. I asked them to allow me to tell them if I had told them anything not true, as soon as possible after I had said it. That way, every time I say something not true to that person and realize I've done it, I can then set things right. There is not too much embarrassment, because they know I have the problem and they rapidly become used to it. However, the effort of telling them every time encourages one to just stick to the truth first time round.

4. Come up with some way of telling other people when you have embroidered the truth. That way, you can retract immediately, when you are lying for no good reason. An example would be when I have said, "I saw at least 100 blue-painted people at the party" (when I'd seen the same group of eight, twice). A typical retraction would be "Oops. I'm exaggerating for effect there. Not that many, but I did see quite a few." That's not too embarrassing socially, but does let you out of the lie. Telling people when you have exaggerated makes it easier to move in the direction of actually telling them the truth first time.

I hope you find a way of breaking this habit before it hurts you or someone else.

A fellow sufferer

Another reader follows a similar program:

I had the same problem in my 20s -- everything I said came out as a lie or an embellishment, no matter how much I wanted to be truthful. I just couldn't do it. Everything you said to Verbal Diarrhea-ite is correct, and helpful, but it's not going to cause her to stop the behavior.

What will, however, is a little negative reinforcement. When I finally got fed up, I decided that every time I spoke a mistruth, I had to go back and admit it to whomever I had been dishonest with. Ow! It was a rough time, let me tell you. And some people didn't understand. But my closest friends, in time, came to trust me even more because they know now that I am capable of honesty when it's called for. They also chide me now about my "hyper-morality."

Probably Overdoing It, but Much Happier

A third reader finds a curious connection between lying and creativity.

Re: Response to Verbal Diarrhea-ite:

I have the same problem, sometimes. For no good reason, I'll find myself just making shit up when people ask me questions, including, "How was dinner last night?" I've discovered that it seems to come out of a compulsive need to create. When I feed my muse -- whether by writing or playing the role-playing games I love so much, or any other essentially creative activity -- I don't find myself compulsively lying.

Your Mileage May Vary, of course. Just my experience.


Finally, the following writer, who damns with praise so faint I think I may need oxygen, reminds us that there's something deeper going on.

Dear Cary,

I want to give you some advice about giving advice ... case in point, the perpetual liar. You made the presumption that the details she embellishes are related to status -- for instance her résumé information or what famous folks she knows. It is not surprising that you, a contributor at a highbrow urbanite magazine, would presume that these are the usual things perpetual liars lie about socially. You are wrong.

Perpetual liars get started lying as a dysfunctional mechanism when they are children and the patterns from that time continue. Verbal Diarrhea-ite is more likely living in something of a fantasy world where everything that happens to her is 10 times more dramatic, unusual and possibly disturbing. By presuming her embellishments are run of the mill and calculated for social gain, you miss the chance to see a more subtle psychological picture. Most perpetual liars live in make-believe land as a deep-seated and long-established defense mechanism. There is something else wrong with her that lying is a proxy for, most likely lack of self-esteem or extreme depression. You focus instead on external problems like dissatisfaction with droll everyday life. It's not likely that the problem is surface level, and by characterizing it in that realm you misdirect her attention and blame away from herself and the underlying source of the problem. Bottom line, lying is a symptom of other problems; those problems need to be found and rooted out.

By Cary Tennis

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