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Pathological Liar

Q. My mom struggles with lying. I'm not sure how to deal with it when I talk to her. Would it be better for me to be direct and acknowledge that I know when she is lying, or should I just let it go? She refuses to belive that she needs help and even denies that she has a problem. What is the best way to deal with her in my every day conversations?

A. Unfortunately, it sounds like you are the one who is really struggling--your mother seems to be too far into denial to struggle. Lying stems from many different underlying causes and conditions, and there is no cookie-cutter approach to managing it. Much depends on whether the individual is suffering from a personality disorder; an early form of dementia; has some transient fear that prompts the lying; feels that her self-esteem will suffer unless she lies, etc.

For more insight into the underlying nature and causes of lying, you may want to see the books "Never Be Lied to Again" by David J. Lieberman; and "Lies! Lies! Lies! The Psychology of Deceit", by Charles V. Ford. The Lieberman book gives the reader a number of suggestions re: how to deal with lying. Again, there is no single right method.

In your case, much depends on the kind of relationship you have, and wish to have, with your mother. For example, if you see her twice a year, and don't need to depend on her to fulfill her obligations to you in any important way, you might not choose to make a big deal of her lying--particularly if the lies are of the relatively harmless, "little white lie" variety. It may be more important to you to keep the peace than to confront such dishonesty. (According to one story in the Talmud, even God altered the facts in order to keep peace between Abraham and his wife, Sarah!).

On the other hand, if you see your mother every week and rely on her to help you take care of the kids, your business, etc., and her lies are causing you substantial difficulty in these areas--well, that's a different kettle of fish. In that case, you may need to gently and privately confront your mother at the time of the lying.

This does not mean making angry accusations--but rather, treating your mother with respect and open-minded concern for her well-being. In a private setting, you might start by saying something like, "Mom, you know I love you and want the best for you. I'm just feeling really confused lately about some of the things you say. It feels to me like you need to shade the truth on some matters, and I don't understand why. For example, the thing you just said to me [specify]. Is there something going on that might make you feel scared of being straightforward with me? Can I help in any way?"

You can see how your mother handles that--depending on her reaction, you may or may not be in a position to help her change. If she outright denies the problem ("I always tell the God's honest truth! I don't know what you are talking about!"), there may not be much you can do. In that case, it would probably be important to take her aside each time she tells a lie, and gently confront her about it--if it's important enough. Not every lie deserves our attention and effort!

Finally, if this is a major problem others in your family are experiencing with your mother, you may need to involve them in helping deal with her. This might involve a carefully arranged family meeting in which several of you have the sort of confrontation I described above, perhaps with the added message that your mother needs to get some professional help with her problem. In the end, if you can't get your mother to change her behavior, and it is really disturbing you, you may want to consider getting some supportive counseling for your own sake.

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July 2002

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