Pseudologia Fantastica – Pathological Lying and Narcissism

One of the biggest problems with Narcissists is their ability to turn something with a grain of truth into the fattest lie you have ever heard and not even realise they are doing it. Often, what they have said doesn’t stand up to scrutiny but proving the lie, whether you are “The Washington Post” or a wife trying to understand her spouse, takes a lot of energy and persistence and can often unleash the wrath of the Narcissist.

But these persistent lies can be damaging to the narcissist too. Sometimes the effects of these lies rebound back on them, undermining their credibility with everyone, other times it has negative effects upon their organisation; but it is the individuals who live closest to them who bear the brunt of the consequences of their lies and deceit.

What is Pathological Lying?

Over 100 years ago, psychiatrists began to investigate the condition of pathological lying and even gave it a fancy Latin name: pseudologia fantastica. It was first described in American Literature by Healy & Healy in 1926. Their definition, which is still accepted today was:

“falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view. Maybe extensive and very complicated, manifesting over a period of years or even a lifetime, in the absence of definite insanity, feeblemindedness or epilepsy.”

In their 2005 review article, Charles Dike and his colleagues attempted to pin down the characteristics of this little understood and ignored phenomenon. They highlighted several people amongst the many luminaries who had been “caught” out, including: Joseph J. Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian; Lord Jeffery Archer, former chairman of the English Conservative Party and Sir Laurens Van der Post, friend of Prince Charles and godfather to Prince William. They also used the legal case of States of California Judge Patrick Couwenberg who had been convicted of lying in office in 2001. He had claimed:

….under oath ,that he had participated in covert CIA operations in Southeast Asia and Africa and that he had a master’s degree in psychology when, in reality, he had never been in the CIA nor did he have a degree in psychology. He had committed many other misrepresentations, including stating that he had received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Vietnam and dramatically reporting that shrapnel was still lodged in his groin. In reality, he was never in Vietnam during the war..”

Whilst psychologists argued the case for and against the Judge, it was suggested that he was not in control of his words in relation to those specific claims but was “compos mentis” to be a judge. He was however removed not solely for his lying but because he was not qualified. He lied about that too! The whole story seems to echo the infamous case of Frank Abagnale Jr, captured by Spielberg in the film “Catch Me If You Can”. Abagnale jr, according to the film anyway, had suffered a psychological wound and rejection by his mother as he had left him and his father at a critical point in his development. This then led him on a desperate drive to win respect by running and lying his way through several false careers until caught by the FBI.

Pathological lying and the link to narcissism

Pathological lying has been compared with the “pseudolying” observed in children. Children engage in fantasy to deny a reality. It is an important developmental stage which all children go through. It has been suggested that:

“when this persists into adulthood, it becomes pathological. It has been proposed that the pathological liar’s ego is fixated at the childhood level.”

In terms of understanding the relationship between pathological lying and narcissism, this could be a significant link, since we know the origins of narcissism lie in a wounded child and attachment. What if a child learns to lie to protect their wounded self and continues this strategy into adult hood, because it is their only way of protecting their fragile ego? Less of a fixated ego, more of a survival necessity.

According to Dike et al, the pathological liar creates an alternative version of themselves incorporating their lies about themselves into belief, so much so that the distinction between reality and the “alternative fact” version of events becomes blurred:

The new “I” supposedly overwhelms the normal “I” who now appears only at intervals, a condition that has been referred to as systematized delirium. Consciousness of the real situation was said to be clouded in the minds of the pathological liar and the lies were described as impulsive and unplanned, “seizing” the liar suddenly.

Once again, the link between narcissism and pathological lying can be seen here. The desire for attention and the simultaneous need to protect the fragile ego and low self-esteem can become automatic and second nature, meaning that there is no conscious thought perhaps? Some psychologists even refer to this as “wish psychosis” since they really believed their own stories.

President Trump indeed, might truly believe that his election crowds were indeed the biggest in history. When “energetically” challenged however, a pathological liar may come to reality, but then their tendency is to change the focus away from it – to move the goalposts if you like.

Pathological liars genuinely want to play the role which is depicted of them in their lies.

Pseudologia fantastica is a fantasy lie, a daydream lived and talked about as reality. Whilst some pathological liars may become totally absorbed in their reality, it is unlikely that this is entirely the case with those who experience narcissism, since our current understanding of narcissism suggest that at its centre lies a constant, aching, wound for which the untruth acts as an emollient. It is this which is the main driver of their actions.

Are narcissists pathological liars? Perhaps, but they just can’t help it!

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