Understanding Trauma Coping Methods: Chronic Lying

Among his teammates, Dean has a reputation for exaggerating to the point of being annoying. Dean is always giving graphic descriptions of his sexual conquests, and according to him, he is exceptionally skilled at pleasing the ladies. Dean claims to have an endless stream of supermodels who just can’t wait to make out with him. But according to the standards of Dean’s culture, he’s a long way from handsome, and when he goes out with his teammates for a drink, they don’t see any women looking at him with hungry eyes. It’s pretty obvious to everyone on the team that Dean is full of baloney, so why does he keep insisting on telling his ridiculous stories?

While Dean is endlessly boasting to his teammates about how skilled and socially connected he is, Serena is feeding her coworkers similar yarns. Only in Serena’s case, her claims don’t add up. On Tuesday, the subject of skiing came up in the staff breakroom, and Serena spent the next hour boasting about what a fantastic skier she is, all of the awards she’s won, and all of the famous people she’s met on the slopes. But on Thursday, Serena launched into a similar speech about her vast experience with wildlife safaris. When Serena tosses out some dates of when she lived deep in the bush 24/7, hunting side by side with the best names in the game, one of her coworkers challenged her. On Tuesday she had claimed to be winning ski competitions on a different continent during the same period of time. The coworker points out that it would be physically impossible for Serena to have been flying down the Alps and sunning herself in the Sahara at the same time. The coworker who challenges Serena is the only one in the Thursday crowd to have heard Tuesday’s accounts. Serena simply looks at her coworker and says, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I never said anything about skiing.” She then goes on to boast about the various weapons she’s used and wide variety of beasts she’s conquered. But by Friday, Serena is scoffing at the notion of safaris and dominating the conversation once again so she can tell everyone about her adventures on a deep sea treasure hunting team. Serena’s charismatic personality and confident tone make her stories sound so real at first. It’s only in time that glaring contradictions surface, yet whenever Serena is challenged, she blames other people for misquoting her.

Serena and Dean don’t just make up wild tales about their personal backgrounds and private lives. They also fib about other details as well. Whenever Dean misplaces something, it’s always someone else’s fault. When he makes a mistake on the field, it’s always because someone else set him up or gave him bad instructions. Meanwhile, Serena loses thirty pounds in two weeks, according to the widely different numbers she gives whenever someone asks how much she weighs. Although her employee file lists her as living in a poor section of the city, she claims to live in the richest area. More than once she’s borrowed date clothes from other coworkers, only to then refuse to return them, as she claims she bought them herself. Serena lies about other people as well, stirring up all kinds of tensions by spreading false rumors about both her coworkers and clients.

Some of the lies that Dean and Serena tell can be instantly caught out. But even in cases where other witnesses saw what actually occurred and accuse Dean and Serena of lying, the two stand their ground, adamant that they are being unfairly treated. It’s as if Dean and Serena actually believe all of the lies that fall from their lips, no matter how absurd those stories are. So do they?

Escaping the Truth

In cases of chronic lying, the liar often has a psychological addiction to telling fibs. This kind of lying is quite different than the lies people tell in a moment of pressure just to win the favor of someone else or gain some kind of advantage. The kind of lying I’m discussing here is a strategic attempt on the part of the subconscious to shield itself from facing certain realities.

Suppose there is a hideous drawing on the wall of a room that you are living in. You can’t paint over the walls or clean the drawing off, yet just looking at it gives you the creeps. To give yourself some hope of relaxing in your space, you go out and buy a framed picture that is large enough to cover the horrible drawing. When you hang the picture up and hide the ugly drawing from view, you instantly feel better.

For the chronic liar, the lies they tell are functioning like that framed piece of art you hung up: their purpose is to try to keep something else hidden. That something else is usually a series of traumatic experiences that the person has gone through and been unable to process. The more severe the trauma, the more desperate the need is to keep it hidden.

Consistent Liars

There are different versions of this trauma coping method. Chronic liars vary greatly in the degree of exaggeration they use, how consistent they are, how often they lie, and how much they personally believe their own fibs. Two key factors in determining how the liar’s mind will try to use the chronic lying defense are how traumatized he is, and how taxed his mind’s resources are.

Sam is deeply traumatized about the death of his wife and child in a house fire six years ago. When people ask if he’s married, Sam says that he is divorced, that his wife has full custody of their kid, and that they both live far away. He is very consistent about telling the same lie regarding the same subject. But when discussing other topics, Sam behaves normally.

Because people don’t press Sam about his divorce claims, he feels his lies are working effectively to give him the help he needs to keep his traumatic memories suppressed. But should someone begin to press Sam for details about the divorce, he would be forced to come up with more lies. At first, he will find this very upsetting and he’ll likely give some contradictory answers as his mind works to come up with a package of fibs that will get other people to drop the subject. As long as Sam’s overall stress levels remain manageable, he will only resort to lies when the subject of his wife and kid come up. But if Sam begins to feel more stressed, his mind will find it harder to keep its traumatic memories suppressed.

MEMORY SUPPRESSION

Memory suppression is a very impressive defensive strategy on the part of the subconscious (see Memory Suppression: How The Subconscious Protects The Conscious). It’s rather like you being able to tune out the sight and sound of someone screaming in your face while you’re trying to read a book. Normally you would feel that the screaming person is simply impossible to ignore. The best you’d be able to do was pretend that you were ignoring him, but your body would still react with many stress signals and you would find it impossible to focus on what you were reading.

To your subconscious, traumatic memories can seem like that screaming person: far too disruptive and intrusive to its daily process. But suppose you were able to shove the screaming person in a closet to at least get him out of your face. That would certainly be an improvement. But what if the closet had no locking mechanism? Now you’ll have to lean against it to keep it closed while the screamer keeps screaming and pounding on the door, trying to get out. In this situation, you’re having to spend a lot of energy keeping that door closed–energy that you can’t use for other things.

In this metaphor, the screamer is a traumatic memory, and shoving the screamer in a closet is memory suppression. Just as you were having to spend a lot of energy leaning on that door, your subconscious has to spend continuous energy to keep traumatic memories suppressed. The more upsetting the memories are, the harder they are to keep suppressed. In the metaphor, if you get too tired to apply enough pressure on the door, your prisoner will be able to break free. In the same way, when a subconscious that is using suppression becomes too fatigued to keep the lid on certain memories, those memories burst free and cause a bunch of chaos.

Your subconscious plays a critical role in keeping your entire system balanced. Your subconscious is constantly multitasking, carrying out countless important tasks in a single day. Some of those tasks require more resources than others, but they each have a minimum amount of resources that must be met if the task is to get done.

Trauma has a crippling effect on the mind, causing every day tasks to suddenly feel more difficult and draining to carry out. When the trauma becomes so severe that there simply aren’t enough resources left to do everything that should be done, your subconscious is forced to start making budget cuts. This is when it begins dropping tasks–not randomly, but strategically. It cuts certain items off of its “to do” list so that it can reallocate those resources to more critical functions. If you understood the immense role your subconscious plays in your ability to function, you’d be properly impressed by its ability to make these strategic resource cuts. The human mind is truly incredible.

When the subconscious starts making budget cuts, negative symptoms occur. Depending on what it is cutting, the negative symptoms might show up in the area of physical health, emotional balance, mental abilities, or social behaviors. Once the symptoms begin to surface, it’s easy to get so focused on them that we forget to consider what is happening in the background. The subconscious is like a brilliant military general who understands that sometimes great sacrifices must be made to ensure survival. There is always a strategy at work behind the symptoms, and that strategy is focused on damage control.

When chronic lying is being used as a trauma coping method, the mind is trying to create a shield of alternate truths that it can focus on so that it will not have to deal with other truths. In the case of Sam, who is a consistent type of chronic liar, he is not just lying about his wife to get other people to change the subject. He is also trying to believe that his lies are true: that he really is just divorced, not widowed, and that his wife and kid are still alive and well. At first, it would be easy to assume Sam is just telling lies to steer conversation away from certain painful subjects. But when chronic lying is being used as a trauma coping method, the liar feels a desperate need to keep suppressing certain aspects of his reality.

Now Sam is far more subtle about his lying than Dean is. Sam only brings up the divorce fantasy when others corner him into it. But Dean launches into his tall tales without any prompting. He often swaggers into the locker room boasting in a loud voice about his latest sexual conquest. Even when his teammates try to change the subject, Dean quickly turns the focus of any conversation back onto his endless stamina in bed.

Dean and Sam are both traumatized and they are both using lying as an attempt to shield themselves from certain devastating beliefs. But while Sam is trying to tune out the horrible thought that he is to blame for the death of his loved ones, he hasn’t lost his entire sense of self-respect. Dean, on the other hand, is grappling with a very dark self-image which is being constantly reinforced by his domineering father and two older brothers. Even though Dean is an adult, his life is completely entangled with his brothers and father and they communicate with him on a daily basis. While Dean’s father approves of his two eldest sons, he talks as if Dean is a walking piece of trash. The verbal abuse began when Dean was very young, and to escape their father’s wrath, Dean’s older brothers immediately sided with his father against him. Physical abuse was also added to the mix, and by the time Dean reached adulthood, he was in a severe psychological and spiritual crisis.

To feel calm, your soul must be able to respect you as a morally decent person. You might have strong religious beliefs, or you might think all religions are dumb. Regardless, your soul has its own moral code, and when it assesses your behavior and general character (which it does constantly), it wants to be able to conclude that you are morally decent. In Dean’s case, this isn’t happening. According to his father and brother, Dean is to blame for every major heartache the family has gone through, including the untimely death of his mother. With his father and brothers painting him in such a derogatory light, Dean’s soul has formed the belief that he is a morally terrible person. His soul also sees him as intrinsically worthless. To feel calm, your soul must believe that you have a certain degree of worth or value as a human being. But in Dan’s case, his soul believes he was born worthless–like some piece of random, pointless trash that the universe spawned by accident. These two traumatic beliefs are causing Dean’s soul to remain in a constant state of distress.

Now while Dean’s soul is squirming uncomfortably, his subconscious is equally upset for different reasons. Your subconscious has different priorities than your soul. Your subconscious cares immensely about the issues of physical safety, social rank, and third party affirmation. To feel calm, your subconscious must be able to feel you are reasonably safe, that you are not the last chicken in any pecking order, and that you can attain the approval of the people whose opinions matter most to you. For Dean, none of these critical needs are being met. He has a long history of being physically assaulted by his father and brothers, and today he still feels completely defenseless in their presence. He has always been the underdog in his family system who no one has any qualms about kicking. As for third party affirmation, it’s his own father and brothers that Dan feels a desperate need to succeed with. He wants their approval and affirmation so badly, yet they are always holding it out of reach. With traumatic beliefs making his life feel hopeless and agonizing, Dean’s subconscious is in a constant state of distress.

Now in real life, Dean is a virgin who is totally intimidated by the idea of trying to have sex with a woman. He is certain that any attempt he makes in that arena will end in some humiliating disaster. He doesn’t have any friends outside of his teammates, and they barely tolerate him. Unlike Sam, who only feels threatened when the subject of his previous family comes up, Dean’s entire life feels like that horrible picture that you needed to cover up with a piece of framed art. Because Dean’s problems are always in his face, he is constantly trying to reinforce his trauma shields by describing himself as someone totally different than who he actually is. When Dean launches into his ridiculous speeches, giving himself something to focus on is his top priority. Certainly it would be nice if he could manage to impress some of his mates, but Dean is so used to failing at everything that he can’t afford to chase after that star. Instead, his long dramatic tales function like the music you crank up when you want to tune out the sound of the neighbor mowing his lawn outside. Dean is desperate for a better image of himself that he can focus on. His lies are attempts to create and reinforce a fantasy world for himself to live in.

After spending an evening being verbally shredded by his father, Dean reinvents the evening in his mind, creating a fantasy in which he possess all of the skills he is so lacking in: confidence, popularity, physical attraction, and sexual theatrics. He then tells that fantasy to anyone he can find, hoping to make it seem more real by hearing himself describing it to others. It is both the severity of trauma and an inability to escape reminders of his traumatic beliefs that cause Dean to lie so much so often. But at least he’s consistent in his stories. He doesn’t constantly revise his accounts like Serena does. So what’s going on with contradictory chronic liars?

Contradictory Liars with Some Consistency

When it comes to contradictory liars, we once again find different levels of frequency. Some are like Sam: only spinning out lies regarding a limited number of subjects. But others are like Dean: constantly yammering on without any prompt at all.

In cases of contradictory liars, the frequency of contradiction varies as well. In strategic contradictions, the liar intentionally makes major revisions to the fantasy he spins only when he finds that the previous one isn’t working. Deeply traumatized by being bullied as a child, Jason is desperate to avoid being chosen as the underdog at work. So whenever he changes jobs, he invents a new life story for himself that he thinks will give him the best shot at being quickly accepted by his coworkers. To date, Jason has played three very different characters at three different jobs. Each time he changes roles, he gets so immersed in his current character that his conscious becomes convinced that he actually is who he is pretending to be. In the background, Jason’s subconscious knows what is really going on, but it wants his conscious to get completely sucked into the role.

Deceiving the Conscious

The relationship between your subconscious and conscious is rather like that of a father and his young boy. Their differences in ability are vast, with the father feeling very protective over his child and the child feeling very dependent on his father. Just as good fathers will intentionally mislead their children and withhold information from them in an effort to protect their children from distress, your subconscious intentionally misleads and withholds information from your conscious. Just as a young child instinctively wants his father to protect and shield him, your conscious wants your subconscious to protect it. So when your subconscious urges your conscious to go along with one of its schemes, your conscious will be prone to cooperating because it wants to believe that your subconscious knows what is best.

Now this relationship dynamic gets messed up when your soul interferes and disagrees with what the subconscious is doing. This sort of thing happens a lot in trauma cases. While stationed overseas at a military base, Ivan was raped by his commanding officer on three separate occasions. As a result of the stress from those assaults, Ivan went ballistic on the battlefield and gunned down some innocent civilians. Now that he’s back home, Ivan’s subconscious is trying to suppress that whole package of horrifying memories because it doesn’t know how to deal with the rape traumas. But Ivan’s soul is freaking out about the immorality of killing those civilians, so his soul keeps interfering when Ivan’s subconscious tries to get his conscious to accept an alternate version of events. Ivan’s subconscious has come up with a brand new, utterly fictitious version of events in which Ivan was never raped and spent the whole time assigned to an entirely different commanding officer. Ivan’s subconscious keeps telling this version of reality to Ivan’s conscious, trying to get the conscious to fully accept it. But Ivan’s soul keeps butting in and bringing up the mission where Ivan lost control. That particular memory file also contains imagery of Ivan’s rapist, who was nearby at the time. The fact that Ivan’s rapist is so prominent in the killing memories makes those files feel very threatening to Ivan’s subconscious. His subconscious needs to bury all of those files but his soul won’t stop talking about them, and this makes it impossible for Ivan’s conscious to fully cooperate with his subconscious’ agenda. Yes, you really are this complex of a being, and when you recognize how individual your different elements are, you’ll be able to make a lot more sense out of your internal conflicts (see The Supremacy of The Subconscious & The Soul).

IGNORING CONTRADICTIONS

Now when Jason changes jobs and invents a whole new character for himself, many of the facts about that character contradict the facts he used for his previous character. When Jason joined a trucking company, he was a man who grew up on a cattle ranch: tough, outspoken, macho, and best friends with beer. When he moved to a tech company, he morphed into the quiet, confident, clever computer genius with powerful friends on the dark web. When the subconscious is using this kind of defense, it doesn’t care about how badly its stories contradict each other. Contradictory liars who have long stretches of consistency are focused on immersing in whatever character they are playing in the present moment. Some are like Jason: inventing characters that they use consistently in as many areas of life as possible for long stretches. Others play multiple character roles at the same time, but they are very consistent in which character they play when, with each character being focused on shielding the mind from threats that arise in specific circumstances.

And then there are types like Serena, who seem to make up random guff on the fly with no strategy at all. What’s going on here?

Contradictory Liars with No Consistency

Anytime a behavior seems random and pointless, we’re not looking close enough. Contradictory liars like Serena can easily come across as either having short term memory problems or as intentionally trying to harm others with their fibs. These kinds of liars can create big problems when given too much power. Thanks to Serena telling blatant lies about the things clients have said to her, the company she works for has a lot of unhappy customers who feel either ignored or mistreated by the customer service they’ve received. On many occasions Serena hasn’t bothered to pass on customer requests for products, causing orders to go unfilled. Other times, she’s blamed her coworkers for making mistakes that she made herself. Delegating tasks to Serena is a risky affair because half of the time she simply doesn’t do them, then claims she was never asked or didn’t understand what someone wanted. Lending things to Serena is a good way to lose them forever, as she rarely returns borrowed things. When it comes to running errands for the office, Serena always pockets some of the change, then lies about how much the total cost was. When the total cost is well known–like the time that Serena collected a total of $50 from everyone in order to buy $30 worth of pizzas–Serena simply claims to not have the right bills to give everyone their due change. Sometimes she gives back a little bit of what is owed, other times she gives nothing. She then keeps putting off the people she’s stiffed, promising to bring the right change “soon” for weeks on end until the complainers get tired and give up. Serena takes excessive breaks during the work day, and when questioned, she makes up lies to make her long absences sound legitimate.

Now there are many ways to manage stress, and different minds will instinctively reach for different methods. Taking drugs, watching porn, stalking, self-harming, assaulting others, agoraphobia, kleptomania, chronic lying, eating disorders–there are countless ways to try to manage stress, and they all feel quite valid and logical to the minds that use them. In Serena’s case, her mind can’t be bothered with creating a complex fantasy world for her to try to live in. Instead, her mind is behaving like the fellow who keeps swatting away the pesky gnats that fly into his face as he tries to relax in a hammock. Such a fellow doesn’t swat until there is something to swat at–some obvious annoyance, some immediate threat. As for the gnats, he couldn’t care less about the damage his hand does to them. All he wants to do is be able to rest without being harassed.

To Serena’s stressed out mind, resources are tight, and lying has proved to be a very effective fly swatter. After a customer gets testy with Serena on the phone, her stress level goes up. This isn’t good. She’s already running at high stress thanks to her jerk of a partner and the bratty kids she has but never wanted. Throw in a leech of a sister who is currently parked in her home, constantly inviting over her shady friends, and Serena’s life feels like something out of a badly written horror movie. She’s felt ugly, insecure, and unloved her whole life and it’s all she can do to just get through the day. So when a customer yells at her, she doesn’t listen to what the man is actually saying or consider that he might have a valid reason to be upset. All she registers is that she’s been attacked. There’s a pesky fly in her face, upsetting her, trying to make her feel more rotten than she already does. Swat. She hangs up the call and pretends it never happened.

Because Serena feels ugly and fat, she feels guilty about eating. So she under eats until she’s starving, then she overeats a bunch of junk food. When she’s under eating, she gets physically exhausted; too exhausted to fill out the overly complicated order form that her company uses. Swat. Serena discards the handwritten order and never enters it properly into the system. There’s yet another customer who will never receive the products they wanted. Serena couldn’t care less. Just as a drowning man doesn’t care about anything but getting more oxygen into his lungs, Serena doesn’t have the margin to focus on other people. She can’t see other people for who they are. To her, they are all just potential annoyances, and when one of them starts buzzing at her, swat. She lies to make them go away.

With her alcoholic boyfriend drinking most of his paycheck and her own spending out of control, Serena is in debt up to her eyeballs. So whenever she finds someone else’s cash in her hand, she pockets it. She doesn’t sit around contemplating the morality of it all. Her soul is so disgusted with her long string of immoral actions that it’s given up trying to nag at her and has retreated into a depressed funk. Serena feels inwardly rotten all the time, but on the outside, she flashes smiles and tosses out laughs whenever that seems to be the best way to keep the gnats at bay.

Of course there are some gnats that just keep buzzing at her, especially her coworker Anne and her manager Sarah. Serena is always ripping on those two women, saying nasty things about them as a way of venting her own frustration at not being able to keep them from annoying her. And then there is Michelle, who has an annoying habit of trying to make Serena face how often she contradicts herself. Serena can’t stand Michelle. Serena can’t stand anyone who causes her stress levels to spike. She avoids annoying people as much as she can, and has no problems being ultra rude to them in public. As far as Serena is concerned, they are the problems because they are the ones trying to overload her mind with stress.

Serena doesn’t have the margin to listen to anyone because her mind is always filled with chaotic, distracting thought fragments. To get a break from her own thoughts and to try to boost her own poor self-image, she often dominates conversations by giving long speeches about impressive things that she’s done. They’re mostly based on things she’s read in books or seen in movies–things that sound cool and seem to make others look at her in envy. Like all humans, Serena wants to feel special. She wants to feel like she matters, that she’s not just forgettable. She feels good when she spins off wild tales of her adventures. She enjoys letting her imagination run wild and can picture herself doing the things she is talking about. She’s essentially daydreaming out loud in these moments. But the daydreams are too tiring to keep running, so she soon drops them and pushes them out of her mind. She doesn’t like it when people throw her previous stories back in her face. She doesn’t like being reminded of all the things she’s never done and how her real life is a sad, boring mess. So Serena simply denies having told her tall tales in the first place. She does this to distance herself from those dreams, and save herself the pain of having to face how unreal they are.

Humans are naturally self-focused, but suffering makes them more so. The more self-focused we become, the less we care about anyone around us. It’s not that we are trying to be nasty, it’s that we simply don’t have any resources to spend on trying to connect with others. It takes resources to listen and not just hear. It takes resources to sympathize and try to see life through someone else’s eyes. When our resources are being devoured by stress and we’re barely keeping it together, we simply don’t have anything to spend on our relationships. So we get nasty. And we cling to any defense we can come up with, regardless of the damage it might be doing to others.

When trauma results in obsessions with harming others, lying is often used as a tool to help malicious plans unfold well. But in Serena’s case, even though she often acts malicious–especially with her mean gossip and intentional thieving–she really isn’t out to stick it to any particular person. She’s just trying to stay afloat in what feels like a sinking ship. She’s using lying to swat away any irritations that get in her face. Her focus is on managing stress in the present moment. She’s not concerned with being consistent with past fibs and she’s not trying to anticipate future consequences. She’s like a soldier who is caught up in hand-to-hand combat. Surviving the current moment is all that matters, and there is too much stress in the moment to leave room for contemplating the past or future.

Conclusion

As I’ve explained, this particular trauma coping method can be applied in various ways. The same can be said for any type of trauma coping method. But for all chronic liars, the goal is the same: to protect an already stressed out system from becoming overwhelmed.

Your subconscious feels that the immense responsibility of keeping your entire system functioning falls mainly on its own shoulders. It will do whatever it feels is necessary to keep itself and your other elements afloat. Because your subconscious does not share your soul’s concern about morality, it has no qualms about doing some very shady things in order to protect you from harm. Lying simply isn’t an issue to your subconscious–not when it feels that lies have proven effective in achieving far more important goals.

It’s very useful to understand that your elements have different personal priorities and value systems. Not only will this help you make sense out of the immoral impulses that you find welling up within yourself, but it will also help you understand what is happening when other people start behaving in ways that seem obviously wrong. The more stressed someone is, the more their subconscious will try to step up its efforts to manage that stress. It is the subconscious and the soul working together that create what people call human nature–that complex blend of intelligence, desires, and some concern for morality. But the more domineering the subconscious becomes, the more indifferent a person can seem to be towards the concepts of right and wrong. Can things be brought back into a healthy balance once a coping method like chronic lying is in play? Yes, but giving the person lectures on the immorality of what they are doing will likely prove ineffective. To help chronic liars lower their defenses, the focus needs to be on figuring out why their subconscious feels so short on resources and so threatened by their current circumstances.

Chronic lying is essentially a cry of pain, and when we recognize it as such, we can be a lot more sympathetic to the liar’s problems. But while we’re being sympathetic, boundaries must also be put in place. Chronic liars are too stressed to give you the respect you deserve in a functional relationship, so you need to adjust your expectations accordingly. Until they are able to resolve some of their own troubles, chronic liars will not be able to hold up their end of a healthy relationship.

This post was written in response to a request.

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