Table of Contents
by Ellen Blake
Who lies? We probably all have at one time or another…
You probably know the expression, “everyone poops”. Well, it may also be true that “everyone lies”. No one wants to think of themselves as a liar, or called one by other people. However, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us do lie on occasion. In most cases, the intent is not to be bad or hurtful. However, in other situations, the falsehood told is, in fact, intended to cause harm. When is a lie forgivable and when is it not?
First of all- Why do people lie?
People lie for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps we tell a “white lie” to avoid hurt feelings. Or we shade the truth, which is another form of lying. Others are prone to exaggeration when telling a story, and in the process make statements that are not entirely accurate. Most of us are guilty of these behaviors at least occasionally and don’t judge others too harshly when they do them.
In other situations, we may not want to admit we do not have an answer, so we craft a response to make ourselves look more knowledgeable and hope no one questions our explanation. And those of us who worry too much about what others think lie fairly often because we say what we think others want to hear. While I find these scenarios both annoying and unnecessary, I realize those lies are symptoms of poor self-esteem, and not intended to be hurtful to others. So I tend to let this behavior slide too.
A common example of a “white lie”: “Does this outfit make me look fat?”
This particular question is used often as an example to illustrate when it might be OK to tell a “white lie”.
When a friend asks if I think a new outfit makes her look fat, I don’t say yes. Ever. Especially if we are out at an event and she’s already got it on. However, I don’t explicitly say no either. I might respond by changing the conversation a bit with something like, “That color looks really pretty on you.” This tactic generally works, and indirectly communicates without being hurtful that I think the outfit was not the best choice without being hurtful. If the person asking the question doesn’t read between the lines and presses me for a more direct response, I admit, I still do not say yes. I might even say the outfit looks nice. This answer is not honest, but so what. If the person asks the question, they must know on some level already that the outfit is not flattering.
If I am in a dressing room with the same friend who is considering purchasing the outfit in question, that’s a different situation. In this case, a stronger response is more appropriate. Again, though, I certainly don’t say “yes, it makes you look fat”, even if it does. Instead I may say, “I think you can do better”. There are people in this world who truly want a completely honest response to this type of question, however, in my experience, that is the exception, not the rule.
When is a lie unforgiveable?
The type of lies I find hard to forgive are the blatantly self-serving ones. What kind of people intentionally tell deceitful lies? As I encounter people in this journey called life, I’ve noticed I seem to come across this behavior more often. I’m not sure if it is actually a more frequent occurrence or because I am older and wiser now I notice the falsehoods more readily. In any case, the liars I know generally fall into one of the following three categories:
People who avoid taking responsibility
These individuals say whatever they have to say to shift blame elsewhere. They don’t think twice about throwing an innocent party under the bus to avoid punishment or save face. Honest, ethical, dependable and reliable people take responsibility for their words and actions and don’t feel the need to lie.
People who tend to care about themselves more than others regularly construct unreal “facts” to take advantage of others. They work hard to get what they want without much thought to how it affects other person.
People with mental illness
Plenty of people are manipulative and/or avoid taking personal responsibility. However, those with mental illness take these poisonous self-serving behaviors to a whole new level. They lie for malicious reasons and actively work to destroy others. Narcissists are particularly dangerous personality types because they are hard to recognize. These people are clever and usually adept at hiding their true colors until it’s too late. They see themselves as victims and will stop at nothing to right an imagined wrong. They actually believe their own lies even when documentation exists to prove otherwise, so don’t try to reason with them. You won’t win.
Living or working with people who frequently lie
Observe what happens when you question details
When you casually ask someone who is comfortable with you about a detail that is inconsistent with their story, they will simply explain the inconsistency. A person caught in a lie will stumble over their words, particularly if they are not very good at lying.
Ask more questions
Ask more questions in a curious, non-confrontational manner. They may embroider the story to make it seem more realistic. If they do, you have something more substantial to ask them about later. It’s hard to keep the details of a story straight consistently when it isn’t true, and liars tend to contradict themselves from one conversation to the next.
Don’t let on that you know they’re lying
Don’t let on you know it’s a fib. No one wants to be called a liar and they will respond defensively. Rather, note your version of the facts, what they said, and ask them to help you make sense of the differences.
The bottom line
If someone frequently lies about significant matters, you may have no choice but to change or end the relationship. In the case of mental illness such as narcissism, a condition for which there is no cure, that’s probably the best plan of action. However, if the relationship is one you don’t want to end for whatever reason, ask yourself what you believe is the person’s intent, keeping in mind that most people do not set out to be bad or hurtful.
In conclusion, be principled and empathetic. Humans by nature are imperfect creatures, ourselves included. We all likely make remarks sometimes that are not 100% true, intentionally or not. However, some lies are bigger and more harmful than others. Decide for yourself if you think the person generally means well. Understand though, If you choose to continue the relationship, you cannot completely trust this individual moving forward. But that doesn’t mean you can’t continue with some type of relationship. It’s important to learn from the situation and set boundaries to protect yourself.
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
originally published 9/25/2021
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