For most people, telling a little white lie every now and again is necessary. Whether it’s to protect the feelings of a friend or family member or simply avoid an awkward conversation, lies are part of everyday life. However, some people fib more frequently than others, to the point where their lying is problematic. While many people often interchangeably confuse the pathological liar and the compulsive liar, these two types of liars have different behaviors, motives, and intentions. These are the fascinating differences between these two types of liars, how to spot them, and what treatment is available to help these frequent liars recover.

Traits of pathological liars

Pathological lying, also known as Psuedologia Fantastica, is a bit harder to detect than compulsive lying. In fact, in most instances, pathological liars are incredible at disguising falsehoods as reality. This is because their lies emerge in response to the situations they’re placed in and the stimuli they’re presented with, giving them resources to spin a practical web of falsehoods. They also don’t show the usual symptoms of lying, such as nervousness or discomfort. They have extreme control over the lies they tell, carefully crafting them to come across as truths. Often times, pathological liars come to believe their lies as reality. They may have trouble distinguishing the truth from their fibs, no matter how extravagant or unbelievable they are. To strangers in conversation with them, pathological liars often come across as engaging, having seemingly led fascinating and interesting lives. However, much like compulsive liars, their chronic lying can often fall apart when people grow close to them.

Pathological lies seem to gravitate around specific mental illnesses, traumas, and abuse in individual’s lives. Pathological lying, while often habitual, might be a coping method for people struggling to deal with severe circumstances. Often times, lying is an escape or a deterrent from the realities of their lives. Pathological lying is also associated with manipulative tendencies in certain personality disorders such as borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial personality disorders. These types of liars tend to lie to their own benefit or satisfaction, meeting an emotional need that they can’t internally fulfill. It’s infrequent for pathological liars to be driven by external motivators to lie. Rather, pathological liars lie in order to meet a need for escape or self-gratification through fibbing.

Traits of compulsive liars

Compulsive liars all share one trait: They can’t stop lying. For the compulsive liar, lying is habitual and unavoidable, often becoming addictive for them over time. After a certain point, compulsive liars may come to fear truth and reality and find solace in lying. However, unlike pathological liars, compulsive liars don’t need a rhyme or reason to lie. They aren’t driven by internal motivations and aren’t seeking to manipulate other’s impressions of the truth. Rather, compulsive liars tell unbelievable fibs, tales, and stories to entertain, impress, or please others. Most compulsive liars struggle with low self-esteem, so they tell lies that make them seem superhuman or gain them positive attention. In this way, most compulsive liars who don’t also have pathological lying tendencies aren’t harmful to those around them.

Compulsive liars are much easier to see through than pathological liars. They aren’t skilled liars, in that they tell lies spontaneously, thoughtlessly, and without consistency. Their lies crumble under pressure, as they tend to exaggerate wildly and without attention to detail. They’re more likely to admit to lying than a pathological liar is, even if they don’t curb their behaviors afterward. Additionally, unlike pathological liars, they can usually tell the difference between their lies and reality. Much of the time, those who they’re lying to can, as well. Compulsive liars just aren’t able to stop lying, even if they’re incredibly conscious of their behaviors.

There are two types of compulsive liars: narcissistic and habitual. Many narcissistic compulsive liars (often on the spectrum for narcissistic personality disorder) tell tales so far-fetched that they’re nearly unbelievable. They may claim that their lost dog was once returned to them by Zac Efron, or that they saved the Vice President from drowning on a California beach. They often embellish or stir up stories that paint them in a positive and interesting light. Habitual liars are exactly what they sound like: they lie out of habit. They lie so frequently that they’re seemingly unable to stop lying. They feel a literal compulsion to constantly tell lies, often without any benefit or reason to them.

How to spot them

Both types of liars can be difficult to detect at the start of a relationship. However, there are certain signs that may cue you in on the fact that your friend, family member, or significant other is a chronic liar. If they’re a pathological liar, they’ll likely tell lies that are manipulative in nature, whether they’re obscure for attention or crafted to attain sympathy. They may be well-crafted fibs, yet if they tell numerous lies that are beyond belief, they may be clearly attempting to manipulate your image of them. They’ll likely struggle to tell reality apart from fiction, attempting to gaslight you about memories or experiences you’ve shared. They’ll also tend to panic when you call out their lies, whether they blow up on you or claim that you misunderstood them. They alter their lies to benefit themselves in different situations, changing details of their fibs for their gain.

Compulsive liars are, as mentioned before, a bit easier to spot than pathological liars. Their lies are more easy to identify as falsehoods, simply because they’re not well thought out or detail-oriented enough to be believable. Their need to lie so frequently and without aim makes it easier to spot a pattern of inconsistencies in the fibs that they’re telling. Compulsive liars may also be clearly struggling with their self-esteem, and therefore, tell extravagant lies trying to elevate their self-worth or status. If you call out a compulsive liar on what you believe is a lie, they’ll likely cave in and admit to their fib.

Treatments for both types

Most of the time, pathological and compulsive liars aren’t liars by nature. They are often suffering from a mental illness, coping with childhood trauma, or struggling with substance abuse. Some were simply raised in an environment where they learned or were trained to lie. While it’s difficult for habitual liars to stop lying, certain steps can be taken to help them treat the root of the issue leading to their symptom of frequent lying.

If they’re suffering from a personality disorder, such as borderline or narcissistic personality disorder, therapy and medication can be useful in providing sufferers with alternate coping strategies other than lying. Therapy is also useful in dissecting how childhood trauma or neglect may have played a role in forging one’s lying behaviors. Lying may also be a symptom of other mental health issues, such as anxiety and O.C.D., which can be quelled with proper treatment of these mental illnesses (mix of medicine, therapy, and other interventions). Replacing lying with healthy coping strategies and communication is necessary for a pathological or compulsive liar to recover from their tendencies to lie.