No discussion of narcissism and lying would be complete without a mention of Donald Trump. Here are just a few examples:
- “I’m self-funding my campaign… I spent a lot of money. I don’t take.” (He’d raised around $7.5m at the time he said this)
- “I’m the only one on this stage that said, ‘Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq.’” (He’d stated publicly that he was in favour of the war)
- “Our president wants to take in 250,000 [refugees] from Syria.” (Obama had suggested 10,000)
These were all before his 2016 election – since then he has lied so many times (over 20,000, apparently), that there’s even a Wikipedia page about it. Many narcissism researchers have publicly stated their belief that Trump has Narcissistic Personality disorder (NPD). Is there a link here? Do narcissism and lying go hand-in-hand?
What is a Narcissistic Liar?
There’s a difference between lying, and being a liar. Most people tell small lies at some point. We do this for many different reasons, for example:
- For our own benefit: “The fish I caught was three feet long!” (it wasn’t)
- To get out of trouble: “No officer I have no idea why you pulled me over” (you do)
- To make others feel good “I love your new haircut!” (you don’t)
These are the classic “little white lies” that people tell. They are seen as harmless, for the most part, and a natural part of navigating the social landscape.
But then there are the bigger lies, those that give us an unfair advantage, often at the expense of someone else. Some researchers call these “black lies”. Like Trump’s examples above, these are less accepted as part of normal human life.
One study in 2014 found that narcissistic traits predicted the use of both white and black lies – but was more successful in predicting black lies. So while narcissists may absolutely engage in the same white lies that everyone else does, there’s another layer of lies on top of that, the black lies, that they are also prone to.
It’s these black lies that separate a liar from someone who lies. And it’s the type of black lies, and the motivations behind them, that separate a liar from a narcissistic liar. Narcissists lie for specific reasons related to the condition of NPD. So to really understand what a narcissistic liar is, we need to delve into their motivations for lying in the first place.
Why Do Narcissists Lie?
From one perspective, a narcissist’s whole life is a lie. Their huge ego and apparent high self-esteem hides a weaker, fragile self underneath. Their actions are designed to be consistent with this projected self, and to protect it at all costs.
And because narcissists have difficulty generating self-worth from within, they need to get it from the reactions of other people. So they lie. They lie about their skills, their abilities, and their accomplishments. Their goal is to receive flattery, praise, attention and adoration from other people to prop up their self-esteem (this is known as “narcissistic supply”).
A number of studies have confirmed this. In one study from 2014, the researchers looked into the motivations for lying among people who possess one of the “dark triad” of personality traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. They found that narcissists lied for the purposes of self-gain. Specifically, their lies revolved around themes of popularity, dominance, and appearance.
In another study, 100 Facebook users were given tests of narcissistic personality traits, and also self-esteem. Then, their Facebook pages were independently analysed to see how much “self-promotional content” they contained (that is, content aimed at presenting themselves in a positive way to others). They found that higher levels of narcissism, and lower levels of self-esteem, predicted more self-promotional content.
These studies demonstrate the general pattern behind narcissists’ lies – the goal here is to get that adoration, that narcissistic supply, from other people, to build up their self-esteem.
However, as many victims of narcissistic abuse will attest, this is not the only type of lie that comes out of a narcissist’s mouth.
The Narcissist Lies to Control You
Control is very important to the narcissistic liar. Again, this comes from the need for narcissistic supply. They need to be in control in order to put themselves at the top of the social totem poll. Lies help them control what people think about them and how people act around them.
Once they’ve achieved this sort of control, the narcissist has the upper hand, and they have free reign to please themselves. They can indulge in their own desires at will. For example, a narcissistic husband may engage in adultery, and then lie about who they have been with “I was with Bob from work, why are you accusing me? I was only at the bar!” If you start to press the matter, the lies may evolve to gaslighting. This is where the narcissist makes you question your own perceptions, your own memories of what has happened “I told you last week that I would be meeting Bob. Don’t you remember? Your memory is so bad!”
At this point, your questioning your own sanity. “Did he say that? He seems so sure about it. Maybe I did just forget…”. Now you’re in a bad position – once you’ve been gaslit, you rely on the narcissist to sort the supposed truth from the lies – and they are the one delivering both.
This sort of deliberate, calculated lying is more common in people with malignant narcissism, which is sort of a cross between narcissism and psychopathy. Malignant narcissists display little to no empathy, and they often lie and abuse not just to gain control, but because they enjoy it.
Does a Narcissist Believe Their Own Lies?
This really depends on the type of lie that they tell.
In July 2020, Donald Trump bragged in a Fox News interview about a “very hard” cognitive test that he apparently “aced.” The test, it turned out, was the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, a test of cognitive decline. A high score doesn’t mean you’re mentally superior, it just means you don’t suffer from a major dysfunction in faculties like memory and attention. It’s the sort of test where, if you don’t get 100%, they take away your driving license.
So Trump’s brag was a clear lie. But his thought process probably wasn’t “I will lie about the test and make people believe I am superior.” Most likely, the thought process was something like “Since I am such a stable genius, the test must have been a very hard test.”
When it comes to self-aggrandising lies – the sort of lie that lines up with how narcissists like to see themselves – they probably do believe them. It would be very hard for them to believe otherwise, because that would mean catching a glimpse of their true self-worth – something narcissists strive to avoid.
But it’s a different story when it comes to the more deliberately manipulative kind of lies we just discussed. In these cases, the narcissist likely knows they are lying, and is doing so consciously.
A 2018 study at Ariel University in Israel found a connection between narcissistic personality traits, and the frequency that people say they lie. They also found that, not only do narcissists admit to lying more, they believe they are better at lying than other people (and there may be some truth to that – practice makes perfect after all). So this study suggests that narcissists do tell some lies that they know to be lies – lies that they don’t actually believe themselves.
Is the Narcissist a Pathological Liar?
If you have a narcissist in your life who is constantly lying, whether to boost their own ego or to manipulate you, you might wonder, do narcissists lie all the time? Is the narcissist a pathological liar?
The answer, is probably not. Pathological liars, generally speaking, lie compulsively. When they see an opportunity to tell a lie, they are powerless to resist it. There’s some evidence suggesting this comes down to abnormalities in the brain, perhaps liked to certain personality disorders, head injuries, or hormone imbalances.
Think of it like this – in any conversation, the brain is churning away in the background, coming up with things you might say next. Many of these possible responses will be lies, but in most people, there is a filter blocking the lies – except in certain circumstances (the white lies we talked about earlier, or perhaps black lies on occasion, in moments of weakness, or to avoid shame or punishment).
Pathological liars lack this filter, so the lies just come pouring out. There’s no strategy, no rhyme, and no reason. They just can’t stop them. With narcissists, as we’ve seen, there is usually a reason for the lies – and sometimes even a deliberate manipulative strategy. So while narcissists lie frequently, the narcissistic liar is not a pathological liar, in the strictest sense.
But if that is indeed the case – if there is a reason for the lies, do narcissists ever feel bad about lying?
Can a Narcissist Feel Remorse About Their Lies?
The boring answer here is, “it depends.”
Think of remorse as like a social glue, something that helps keep people together. When you start doing something negative towards someone else, remorse kicks in, you feel bad, and this discourages you from doing something like that in the future. This helps you avoid alienating people, so that you’ll enjoy better relationships with the people around you.
So, in order to feel remorseful about something you did, you have to be able to understand your action’s consequences on other people. That requires empathy – the ability to feel what other people feel in a given situation.
Unfortunately, many narcissists display low levels of empathy. In these cases, they simply don’t feel bad for hurting other people. The remorse “circuitry” might well be present in the narcissist’s brain, but without the empathy, it doesn’t get triggered.
Now, not all narcissists are low in empathy, and even in those that are, “low” does not mean “zero.” So it’s likely that narcissists do feel some remorse at some times. But this may not be enough to trigger a shift in how they behave towards you. For more information on this topic, see my related article: Can a Narcissist Truly Apologise.
How to Deal With a Narcissistic Liar
So we’ve gone over the “what” and the “why” of narcissistic lies, now let’s talk about how you can deal with them.
The first and perhaps most important step, is to get a good picture of the relationship now. As we’ve talked about, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction when dealing with narcissists, especially the high-functioning variety.
Do you find yourself questioning your own senses, memories, and perceptions? Do you have an underlying feeling that something isn’t “right” in the relationship, feelings that they are able to talk you out of? If so, you may be deep into a web of lies at this point. It can really help to get a second opinion, from someone who doesn’t know the narcissist or a counsellor who specialises in NPD. This can give you a grounding in reality, as someone looking in from the outside may see things very clearly that you can’t. Even if you’re already sure you’re being lied to, it can still help to seek outside support, as this can give you a little more emotional strength.
Next, try to evaluate the situation carefully. Lies and manipulation are a form of emotional abuse, and they are not something you should feel you need to accept. If you are being abused in this way, it is time to think about leaving the narcissist.
Wait a second, just leave? Shouldn’t you consider confronting them about their behaviour?
Should You Confront a Narcissist About Their Lying?
Because some narcissists have a way of getting you “under their spell”, so to speak, you may hold strong, and genuine affection towards them, even despite their abusive behaviour. So you might hold out hope, “If I confront him, maybe he’ll see the error of his ways. Maybe he’ll change.”
Unfortunately, this outcome is quite unlikely. Confronting a narcissist will often lead to more of the same behaviour that you’re trying to avoid. Remember, narcissists are good at lying, and probably very good at lying to you. Once you start a confrontation, you’re in their world. This will not be the first time they’ve been caught lying, and, quite possibly, they’ve had some practice at getting out of this situation.
Rebecca Zung has a nice post breaking down what often happens when a narcissist gets caught lying, which she breaks into the Four D’s:
- Denial: they may simply deny that they lied, or deny that your version of events is the truth (potentially leading to gaslighting).
- Deflection: with narcissists, there’s always someone else to blame, and they may even see their actions as justified – “I only do it because I love you!”.
- Devalue: in a fight-fire-with-fire tactic, they might even shift the blame onto you, using criticisms and put downs to lower your self-esteem, making it harder for you to continue the confrontation.
- Dismissal: They might try to just shift gears, change the topic, and find excuses not to talk about it.
The bottom line is, confrontations probably won’t go as you hope. A better approach is to set boundaries of what behavior you won’t accept “If you continue to lie to me, I will end the conversation.” This way, you’re standing up for yourself without being pulled into their world. And it’s worth repeating, find some support, and then think seriously about ending the relationship, and how you would do that.