The Deceitful Impulse
People lie. Whether it is the infamous "little white lie" or a tall tale, most of us have been dishonest at some point. Without realizing it, we usually lie because we want something. Subterfuges like half-truths and embellishments are just the vehicles that help us achieve our means.
Hide and Seek
Some people want to hide their actions, so they concoct stories that allow them to continue what they’re doing without divulging the truth. When the truth is eventually revealed, which it almost always is, they either blame their actions on someone else or continue to lie. The woman who is having an affair will tell her spouse she is spending time at work or with a friend. When her spouse learns the truth, she might respond with, “This is your fault because you didn’t want to have another baby.” Or, she might deny the affair – even when the facts clearly show she is lying – and continue telling a fraudulent story. Either way, she deflects blame and escapes accountability.
Other people want to hide from reality and fabricate lies that are more attractive than truths. Those in this category might be dissatisfied with certain aspects of their lives, such as how much money they earn or the places they've traveled. “I make $90,000 a year,” a man can say to his friends when he actually makes less. Perhaps he's ashamed because he feels he could (and should) make more money. Maybe he knows his friends will jibe him if they knew the truth. Or, he might be trying to hide what he believes are his personal inadequacies.
Still other people want to feel important. They might exaggerate a compliment from someone or falsely claim they’ve met a celebrity. The intent here is to convince others they are powerful and/or attractive. They feel that lying will provide fruitful relationships, popularity, and love.
The Emotional Spectrum
Lying is unique in that it can bring profound joy or immense guilt. For those who feel the latter, they might even want to cease their deception but can’t because they've become so enmeshed in the web. They know they're lying to manipulate others, and they acknowledge this is wrong. But the size of the lie is so great – or the potential for punishment so frightening – that they just can’t admit wrongdoing.
The person who finds a sense of delight in lying might have a deeper problem than just wanting to cover the truth. Three kinds of liars who don’t care about the consequences of their actions are dissociative, compulsive, and pathological. Those in the first group believe, to some extent, the lies they tell. Compulsive liars are those who habitually lie because it feels good - better than telling the truth. Pathological liars may not even realize what they are doing as they try to spread gossip or cover poor job performances with lies.
The people in these categories are different from ordinary liars in that they build their lives around false stories. They hide the truth with greater frequency and less regard for others. They don’t consider the hurt a lie will bring, but that their personal wants will be satisfied. In other words, they think only of themselves with each new web they weave.
Regardless of the circumstances, most lies are eventually discovered. The events leading up to that point can be sordid and complex, as first one lie and then another roll from the tongue. But the end result is often the same, with the liar being forced to accept blame and the victim having to choose whether or not to forgive.
The magnitude of this situation is only increased when the lie renders the opposite of what was hoped. The woman who wanted to hide her affair ends up divorced; the man who wanted acceptance is ridiculed by his friends; and the person who wanted sympathy from a tale of woe is shunned. This is because lies involve more than just words. They are acts that cause irreparable harm to a relationship. People generally know this before they start lying, but they choose to do so anyway.
In a society obsessed with personal gain and gratification, it’s no wonder lies are told with such fluidity. A little self-censorship and the desire to do what’s right might help all of us become more honest. Perhaps that’s where telling the truth needs to start: with ourselves, to prevent our illusions of self-worth from becoming so grand that we feel compelled to lie. If we realized we each have shortcomings that are part of human nature, the truth might not seem so bad.