Why do people lie? It’s been a question I’ve been working with lately. A couple of people have now caught me completely off guard by making up stories that aren’t true. Not just one-off white lies or omissions but detailed, elaborate lies over a period of time. And these aren’t “jerks” who were out to intentionally hurt me but generally kind-hearted people who really cared about me.
This behavior is sad and scary. And yet not that uncommon apparently; it’s the subject of many beautiful and tragic songs, poems, movies because so many of us experience it. Sometimes elaborate lies in movies or sitcoms are comedic, because human nature also needs to laugh at itself.
I think I may have some insights into the lying phenomenon, even though I have to say that it isn’t one of the demons that I personally struggle with. This is meant to provide some insights that would help you understand, have compassion, and hold firm around this pattern of lying in relationships.
Here is why people have lied to me (no matter how it externalized itself, from the worst betrayals to the most minor of cover-ups):
1. They think they are not good enough
Insecurity. Their ideals about what they should be/could be are out of sync with how they perceive themselves to actually be. So they try to make up the difference by filling in the space between. They feel too inadequate to fill the space with actual substance so they fill it with bullshit.
2. They think they are bad
Shame. Icky dark deep shame. This is different from not being good enough (questioning value), this being “bad” stuff is about questioning your very…okayness as a being. People who have a very strong sense of shame may have been abused or betrayed by people or structures in power. They internalize this as something being bad about them that they deserve that. They may then worry that they will perpetrate similar pain on others if they are not careful. So they make decisions to “not be like…” but anytime we make that decision we can give it so much power that it becomes a shadow–a part of us we deny but comes out when we least expect it in uncontrollable and painful ways (i.e. religious leaders who abuse children, hidden addictions).
Someone who experiences that shame as a powerful force in their life has to spend a lot of energy hiding it, seeming ok, if they are going to make it in this world. They may be very invested in taking on a persona of being a complete “good guy” to cover up for their strong feelings of being at their core, bad. The people who have lied to me have done so because they saw no other way to preserve their identity as a “good person” in my eyes. No matter how much I begged them to be honest, the truth was always much scarier for them than the lying. Because lying feeds the shame, which has become like an old friend who moves into your apartment and always eats everything in your fridge. You resent it but don’t want to lose their comforting presence. They remind you of your inner child and you’re not sure who you would be without them.
What To Do When Someone Lies
You can’t fix the pattern of lying for someone else. You can’t love someone enough to heal their insecurity and shame. You can’t forgive them enough to make them never lie again.
Before I sound too jaded, let me say that the only answer IS love and forgiveness. And we can give our love and forgiveness to people, and must. But if they can’t give it to themselves they will lie again. And they will hurt you again. And that will make them feel more ashamed.
So what can you do if someone you love is a liar?
You must have a firm “no lies” policy. If there isn’t trust in your relationship there really can’t be love, or a life together. For both of you, the truth has to be more important than protecting insecurity and shame.
They need to get some help to address the pain that is causing them to do things they feel ashamed about and their criticism of themselves. Yes, I’m a fan of professional help. Because I just don’t think people change deeply entrenched behaviors on their own. The hero’s journey requires a mentor/magician to help us walk into the cave and face our deepest fears, slay the dragon, take back our crown, and all of that mythical greatness.
Create space and time to have clean, honest conversation about what you each want in your lives and in the relationship. Include what you are thankful about in the other person and let the energies of purification, forgiveness and love wash over you.
Be willing to leave if they keep lying to you. I share that learning as someone who kept making excuses for my partner because “he must just love me so much and not want to hurt me” and “this time he really believes me that I’d rather hear the truth”. And he just kept lying and feeling more ashamed and unworthy. A bitter cycle that wasn’t good for anyone. If your partner doesn’t love themselves they cannot actually love you. Something I always knew but didn’t really KNOW until I experienced it.
I do believe that people can change life-long patterns if they choose to get the resources they need for real transformation. And if they love Truth more than they love their painful way of being. But sometimes people need to do that alone before they can be in relationship. Let’s love ourselves and each other by being wise to when we should fight for a relationship and when we should release it.
I am available for personal coaching and also facilitate small group sessions periodically in Denver, CO.
Please share your thoughts below. As always, these entries are my thoughts as they are now, not finished products, but evolving as I continue on my journey.
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I am a coach, facilitator and program director in Denver, Colorado. I bring a high-performance mindset from 18 years leading in global corporations, startups, non-profits and Higher Ed. I’ve also honed skills in emotional intelligence and practical spirituality through training with ICF, Shadow Work®, Insights Discovery and motherhood. If you’re ready to do powerful inner work, and also get tangible results in your external environment, please follow my blog and reach out to talk about coaching!