Q: I have a problem: I lie all the time and cannot control it. I've hurt many people in my life. What kind of help is available for me?
A: Everyone lies at some point or another.
Some lies are minor, like bending the truth so you don't hurt another person's feelings. Some lies are hugely harmful, such as the deception perpetrated by Bernard Madoff, the fraudulent money manager who cheated thousands of investors out of billions of dollars in an enormous "Ponzi scheme."
Some lies are even necessary. In a country ruled by a dictator, telling the truth could get you jailed or killed. And some lies are told for the sake of mischief, like the pranks played on April Fools' Day.
Lying is not usually seen as a "disorder." Rather, just as fever is a symptom of many illnesses, lying can be a "symptom" of a larger problem. You might be able to find help if you can identify what that larger problem is.
What is the motivation for your lying? What's the point? Here are a few possibilities:
--You are seeking autonomy or independence.
--You are trying to avoid or deny an upsetting fact.
--You are trying to feel better about yourself.
--You want a wish to come true.
--You want to assert yourself, to feel some power over your life.
--You enjoy being aggressive.
We could make this list much longer, but let's stop at number six. Sometimes people who repeatedly hurt others in their lives actually want to be hurtful. They may enjoy it. Maybe all of us enjoy it a little bit. It's the pleasure we can feel watching the bad guy in a movie "get what he deserves."
You say your lies have hurt people in your life. You may feel shame about it. But it's possible that you're angry at the people you've hurt, perhaps without knowing it.
I would recommend, as a first step, that you find a therapist. In the safety of a therapist's office, describe your lying in detail. Then you can explore what the lying does for you.
And a final piece of advice: Instead of worrying about controlling your lying, make your goal to be less hurtful to the people you care about.
(Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts. Dr. Miller is the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.)
(For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)
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