I’m a compulsive liar

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 18, 2005

My deceptions are elaborate and crazy but I can’t seem to stop.


Dear Cary,

I don’t really know what good this will do; I just think I need to tell someone, some soul, the truth about who I am.

Ever since the 10th grade or so (I’m just shy of my mid-20s now), I have been a compulsive liar, a thief and a bit of a manipulator. So far, this has ruined countless friendships, several long-term relationships and one marriage. Sometimes the motivation is laziness, sometimes it’s all in the noble spirit of braggadocio, sometimes it’s just because I can or because I relish the simple thrill of getting away with something. I don’t really know why.

It’s been suggested that this compulsion is some simple misfiring somewhere deep in my brain and that with adequate therapy and chemical treatment, I could eventually become an honest person. I believe this is incorrect. I would love to believe that it’s not my fault; however, I go to extraordinary lengths to flesh out and protect my larger lies.

For example, I don’t think my ex-wife was aware of the fact that for nearly three years I’d go to local libraries to read up on the subjects I was supposedly formally studying, and that I was researching the local university’s infrastructure, geography and staff so I could keep up the illusion that I went there. I even went so far as to manufacture homework, quizzes, projects, transcripts and FASFA forms for myself.

I find myself moving from city to city to city, feeling that if I only start fresh somewhere, and just tell the truth to everyone, they’ll like me for who I am and not for the person I’ve crafted. And it always starts the same way everywhere I go. I always feel like my character needs a little more fleshing out, a little more motivation, and so I’ll concoct a long, involved story that neatly corresponds with easily verifiable data.

I sometimes think that perhaps I’m a sociopath, or that I’m a narcissist, or some -path or -ist that I don’t know, but it hurts me every time I do this, every time I lie or I cheat or I steal or hurt someone. I love my friends and my family and I wish they could know who I am, and not who I made up, but for some reason deep inside of me, that can’t be and I don’t really know why.

I don’t really know if there’s any advice to be given, or if there is, that I’d have balls enough to follow it. I suppose I just want to know if there’s still some hope for me to become a good person.

Tired and Twisted

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Dear Tired and Twisted,

I think you should see a specialist. However entertaining my words may be, they are vastly insufficient to the task of rescuing you. So let us assume that I have advised you to seek out a specialist in compulsive behavior and that you have agreed to do so. OK? You’ll go get some help, right? You’re not just telling me that? You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?

Now then. I would say this to you: Stop accepting the bribe. That is, stop accepting the payoff of your behavior. For years you have been carrying around a plain unexceptional self disguised as an immensely clever young man. Say goodbye to that clever young man. Now begins the era of the regular you. Discard the enhanced version of yourself. Starve it out. Refuse to take pleasure in it. Take pleasure only in things that are true. Say this to yourself: Only what is true is permitted. I will live secure in this little area of only the true.

Take a look at yourself unadorned. Take your unadorned self out on the street. Walk it around. See how it feels. Shave your head and only tell the truth for one day.

Admit all that is false. Admit it to anyone. If you like, admit it to me and I will keep your secrets.

There will be a cost. I’m saying start paying. Return uncashed all checks written on your false account.

Let the elaborate edifice finally fall: First comes tumbling down the facade. Then comes the whole building crashing down. Let it fall! Rejoice in the thunderous noise of its destruction! Clap your hands and sing!

Let it all fall down. Celebrate its demise. At the same time, toss into the fire all your false hope. You are not about to become a saint. You are simply a man discarding junk on the edge of town. Let go of grandiosity even in your hopes for the future. Envision a level world. Go to a neutral place. Do not believe in God nor not believe in God. Do not construct a belief in God or an idea of God. Leave God alone. Just dump the lies. Find a place in the ground and dump them there; find a place of ambivalent acceptance and cover it over with earth. Walk away quietly.

Don’t be so damned dramatic. Don’t go overboard. As I advised that person back in 2001, the trick is to cultivate an appreciation for the stupid tiny good things. “The facts of your life are fascinating if you cultivate them,” I wrote.

I still think it makes sense.

There are also some practical reasons for you to consult a specialist in compulsion: Eventually, if you do nothing, you may be arrested and charged with a crime. Eventually you may not be able to make a living. Eventually you may fail to amuse even yourself. Eventually you may forget who you are. Eventually you may fall apart. Eventually it will be much less fun than it is now. So it’s obvious you have to change.

So that is the program of change I envision for you: Good-faith work with a talented specialist; a radical jettisoning of accumulated falsehood; a coming clean, a time of reckoning, perhaps a series of ritual burials, a program of regular work and ongoing accounting, at the end of which you should have a story to tell that is not only remarkable but true.

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