Most people have told a lie or two in their lifetime. Maybe they twist the truth to keep someone from getting hurt. Or, maybe they mislead someone in order to achieve an end goal. Others might lie to themselves about their true feelings.
But the stories we tell can sometimes get away from us, and lies can have serious consequences.
If lying’s become a more regular habit in your life, try not to be too hard on yourself. After all, most people do lie, even if they don’t admit it.
Instead, ask yourself how you can break this pattern and be more truthful going forward. We’ve got some answers to this question that can help.
The next time you find yourself in a lie, stop and pay attention to what’s going on inside.
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- How do you feel?
- Are you lying to make yourself feel better or avoid making someone feel bad?
Answering these questions can help you pinpoint which scenarios, emotions, or other factors trigger you to lie. Once you’ve identified some triggers, take a mindful look at them and think about some new ways to respond to them.
For example, if you tend to lie when you’re put on the spot, try planning out possible responses before going into situations where you know you might be in the hot seat or under a lot of stress.
Lies can take different forms. Erin Bryant, author of a small 2008 study looking at how college students separated white lies from other types of dishonesty, suggests lies can be divided into several categories.
Types of lies
- white lies
- lies by omission
- “gray” or subtle lies
- complete untruths
Narrowing down the type of lying you tend to engage in can help you better understand the reasons behind your lying.
Maybe you exaggerate your achievements at work because you believe you’re less successful than your friends. Or, maybe you don’t tell your partner about your lunch with an ex because, even though you have no intention of cheating, you worry what they might think.
“Sure, hanging out sounds great!”
“I’d love to have you over for a few days.”
“No, I’m not too busy. I can definitely help with that project.”
Do any of those phrases sound familiar? Have you said them without an ounce of sincerity? Maybe they’re half true: You’d like to hang out but you aren’t feeling it right this minute.
You might feel more motivated to lie if you have a hard time creating boundaries in your personal or professional life. These lies might not seem like a big deal, but they can take a toll on you.
It’s not always easy to say no, especially if you don’t want to hurt a friend’s feelings or face possible consequences at work. But being more assertive about your needs can help you speak up about what’s best for you.
Start by giving complete answers, not ones that you think the other person wants to hear.
- “I can’t take on more work this week because I need to focus on the tasks I already have. But I can help out next week.”
- “Tonight doesn’t work for me, but I’d like to hang out. Could we try for later this week?”
Remember the old adage, “honesty is the best policy”? There’s a reason it’s stuck around. Lying (or omitting the truth) really doesn’t help anyone, including yourself.
If you lie because you think the truth will upset someone or cause harm, ask yourself what the worst outcome would be if you decided to tell the truth. Chances are, it’s not as bad as you think.
Imagine that you have a brother who really wants you to help with his new startup idea. You aren’t feeling it and keep putting him off. Eventually, he might eventually give up on the whole idea because he can’t do it alone.
If you told him the truth, the worst case scenario would likely be that he gets upset at first. But after that initial reaction, he might seek out a partner who’s completely onboard. This will only help him in the long run.
If you’re trying to be more honest, don’t attempt to flip a switch and stop lying entirely from that point forward. Sure, it might sound like a good plan, but it’s not realistic.
Instead, just commit to being more truthful each day. If you slip up or find yourself back in a lie, don’t get discouraged. You can make a different choice tomorrow.
If acquaintances, co-workers, or family members ask prying questions about your personal life, you might feel tempted to lie and get them off your back. At the same time, you aren’t obligated to give everyone open access to your life.
You don’t have to lie to avoid sharing details you’d rather keep private. Instead, try a polite but firm refusal, such as, “That’s between me and (partner’s name),” or, “I’d rather not say.”
If they know you won’t tell them anything, they may stop asking sooner.
Dishonesty might help you stall when you need to make a decision, but it generally doesn’t solve problems.
Say you want to break up with a casual partner, but you’re finding it hard to start the conversation. Instead, you offer excuses like, “I’m really busy with work this week,” or “I’m not feeling well” whenever they try to make a date.
From your perspective, this is a kinder way of saying you don’t want to see them. In reality, you’re just prolonging the breakup process. They might fail to pick up your hints, remain invested, and have a harder time when you actually do reach the point of breaking up.
In this example, your desire to hurt them less could actually end up causing them more pain.
Everyone lies for unique reasons, says Kim Egel. She adds that some people might find the truth more distressing than the consequences of lying. In other words, “we lie when telling the truth surpasses our comfort zone.”
Discomfort with the truth can lead to lies that attempt to control or change a situation. If you feel unhappy or distressed by something but believe you can’t change it, you might attempt to deceive yourself and others instead of accepting how you truly feel.
Getting more comfortable with the truth often involves accepting a challenging or painful reality, perhaps even admitting you made a mistake. Learning to accept the truth can be an ongoing process, but it often results in some valuable lessons.
“We lie because that’s what we were taught to do,” Egel says.
There’s a good chance when you were a kid, one of your parents said something like this: “Even if you don’t like your birthday present from Grandma, tell her it’s just what you wanted so you don’t hurt her feelings.”
Bryant’s 2008 study suggests most people generally accept white lies as harmless. In some cases, white lies might even be encouraged as a common part of social interaction.
Egel believes “there’s always a way to express truth in a classy, well-intentioned, and respectable way.” She goes on to explain that while lying can damage your relationships with others, it can also damage the relationship you have with yourself.
“When we start breaking trust within our own world,” she says, “that inauthenticity spiderwebs from there.”
Instead of justifying why a lie is necessary to protect someone’s feelings, put that energy toward finding a way to achieve that same goal by telling the truth.
“Sometimes situations come up and there really isn’t a linear and straightforward way to handle them,” Egel says.
She suggests using skills like intuition and timing, or even tracking how conversations pan out, before deciding what you’ll say and how you’ll navigate the path ahead.
The decision to be truthful is one you have to make yourself. Before you make the choice to lie or not, consider whether your actions:
- show respect for yourself and others
- support everyone’s best interest, not just your own
- might have future consequences
You might be dealing with compulsive lying if your lies are:
- not serving purpose
- frequent and persistent throughout your life
Compulsive behaviors are hard to stop on your own, and working with a therapist can make the process much easier. They can help you learn more about the underlying reasons behind your lying and help you stop.
If you started lying to cope with a difficult childhood, for example, working through what you experienced could help you feel less of a need to lie.
Some people who lie compulsively believe their lies, which can make recognizing these lies somewhat difficult. If this applies to you, talking to a close friend or family member can give you some insight into what’s happening. You can also bring someone you trust to therapy if you think you’ll have a hard time sticking to the truth.
Even if your lying doesn’t feel compulsive, working with a therapist can be a big help if you’re trying to overcome a habit of lying. This is especially true if you find that lying is having a negative impact on your day-to-day life.
Egel encourages taking action to seek support sooner rather than later. “Like anything in life,” Egel says, “the sooner a problem is acknowledged and worked on, the less damage done.”
This can be particularly true with lies, which often build on each other and become increasingly complex and hard to keep track of. If you’ve been telling lies for a long time, you might not know how to begin untangling them and worry everyone will be angry once they hear the truth.
A therapist can offer compassion and support as you begin the process. In therapy, you can also talk about your goals around honesty and get guidance if you continue to struggle with dishonesty. They can also help you rebuild trust with loved ones.
Lying is a complex behavior that can serve a lot of functions. At the end of the day, it usually doesn’t do anyone any favors.
If you’re finding it hard to be honest, either to others or yourself, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to get to the root of the issue. Worried about the cost? Our guide to therapy for every budget can help.
Crystal has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.