Lying, as we commonly use the word, refers to the deliberate telling of an untruth. Ordinarily associated with a motive of some kind, it differs from what is called confabulation in that the act of lying is committed on purpose. Most children go through a phase (or two) when they lie more, usually to try to avoid getting into trouble for something they have done.
This is actually not an atypical or particularly abnormal or surprising aspect of child development. What we hope they’ll find out, of course, is that whatever trouble their actions may bring upon them are only exacerbated by the lying. Most kids whose parents handle it well figure this out.
When the phenomenon continues, however, into adult life, lying can undermine our own self-esteem, our relationships with others and out overall mental health.
How does lying negatively impact our own mental health?
Most critically, frequent or habitual dishonesty with ourselves about ourselves fosters a confused, confusing and likely unrealistic view of who and how we are. The less accurate our self understanding, the less accurate our perceptions of the world around us. After all, our own self is the lens through which we experience the rest of the world.
If that lens is clouded with distortion, we will not be able to see things outside of ourselves clearly. Moreover, people who lie a lot tend to feel that they are being lied to regularly. This phenomenon, of thinking that what you are doing is actually being done to you is called, in psychological terms, projection.
A world misperceived is a world not to be trusted populated with people to be avoided and words to be presumed false. All skeptics are not liars, but lying does foster categorical mistrust of everything and everyone else.
Most people who lie a lot are not succeeding in fooling many people beyond themselves. Rather, the behavior causes others to keep the person lying at a distance and reduces or eliminates their credibility – even in areas where they may have vast and accurate knowledge.
The feedback from and reactions of other people becomes consistently negative and self-esteem, one of the general measures of mental health, suffers considerably. Ironically, this situation can actually cause some people to respond by telling more and bigger lies. The situation then worsens.
Some people lie compulsively, automatically and constantly. No one trusts them of feels safe to get close. In this degree, it is, arguably, an illness rather than an ill-considered behavior.
Professional liars are, certainly, another matter. Grifters, scam artists and con persons lie for a living. It is their stock-in-trade. They regard it as a skill and really don’t care about any interpersonal consequence so long as they make their living to their own standard. In recent years, we have all been confronted with the reality of the large corporate version of this, although they would argue that what they did was legal, they certainly did lie.
If they were an individual, they would be ill. I suspect that the same principle applies to organizations as well. There are healthy ones and sick ones. Lying is not a sign of health, mental or otherwise, for either individual or company.
Being truthful with one’s self is not always easy. Most of us lie to ourselves from time to time when the truth about ourselves simply is too painful to acknowledge. To the extent that these situations are rare and only occasional, we are probably OK.
When the activity becomes regular and a part of how we generally function, it is not OK and we are hurting ourselves; both in terms of our compromised ability to know who and what we are as well as with regard to our necessary ability to perceive the world around us with some accuracy.
I am not the first nor will I be the last to repeat the line that is Polonius’s last piece of advice to his son Laertes in Shakepeare’s famous play, Hamlet,
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man …”
Honesty to the self correlates directly with honesty with other, and both are intricately tied to our own mental health and overall well being.