Adam Szmerling is a qualified counselor, psychotherapist and hypnotherapist from Melbourne, Australia who practices counseling at Bayside Psychotherapy in the Bentleigh area. Szmerling, who has extensive experience working with various mental health conditions and their associated problems, shares his expertise o the topic of compulsive lying in this exclusive expert interview. Find out how you or a loved one can become free from lying addiction.
Compulsive Lying Interview with Adam Szmerling
Seeking Compulsive Lying Treatments
LoveToKnow (LTK): Why can't people stop lying by themselves?
Adam Szmerling (AS): Just like bad eating habits and not engaging in a consistent exercise routine, compulsive lying creates harmful habits. These are hardwired patterns, which can be extremely difficult to break without support and assistance from a trained psychotherapist. Compulsive lying is typically a superficial cover up of deeper problems, often rooted in attachment issues. What I mean by attachment issues is that as infants and young children we learn about relationships through those we experience with others (primarily our caregivers, but this may also include teachers and older children). This forms the template for how we relate to others and ourselves as an adult. When we don't receive "good enough" parenting, insecure attachments often develop. This can manifest in an "anxious-ambivalent" pattern, in which individuals put the needs of others before themselves, are terrified of abandonment and often have trouble controlling intense emotions. Conversely the "avoidant" pattern involves avoiding any intense feelings and relying on intellectualization and rationalization.
For the same reason people can't regulate their emotions by themselves; we are hardwired for attachment. We are relational beings. We require a supportive "other" to help us contain our feelings. As such, compulsive lying or pathological lying can be resolved within relationship, not by oneself alone.
LTK: What motivates people to seek treatment for their lying?
AS: Usually relationship difficulties or crises. Sometimes a person who lies compulsively has a boss, parent or spouse who calls in the first instance begging me to help them. Often such third parties give the liar an ultimatum such as, "Stop lying or I'm going to leave you!", so they often present with urgency for change.
LTK: How can a friend or family member help someone with a lying disorder seek treatment?
AS: It can be difficult. People have to want to change intrinsically or it'll probably be a waste of effort at best. With that said, the best thing you can do in this situation is to gently and genuinely show empathy - remember a compulsive lying problem, even narcissistic pathology, doesn't come out of thin air! If someone lies even at your expense, know deep down even below his/her awareness, he/she is desperate for approval and feels extremely anxious. So the more you can demonstrate assertively that while you won't tolerate being used, lied to or taken advantage of, you acknowledge how telling the truth takes huge courage and is not easy. Praise the person's strengths. Only then, you could gently point the person towards seeking counseling, reassuring them that counseling is confidential and non-judgmental. Furthermore, the best way to help someone else is to help yourself, first. And no, I'm not being clichéd here. Really, think about it. Have you seen tuning forks work and resonate with each other? Well, humans work the same way emotionally. If you want to influence another, change yourself first.
Another tip: Read about attachment disorders and the origins of shame. It will help you see compulsive liars as suffering human beings requiring compassion and empathy (as well as firm boundaries, of course).
What to Expect in Treatment
LTK: What types of treatments are there for compulsive liars?
AS: There are combinations of counseling, hypnotherapy and mindfulness therapy. Since lying is the surface problem, I aim to address the cause, to ensure changes stick. The cause is usually shame and/or anxiety based, which means compulsive lying is a misguided attempt to defend against these overwhelming feelings. Narcissistic traits are also common in this population. Therefore, treatments are tailored to the individual, according to his/her attachment style. Most often, people are anxious avoidant - dealing without feeling, esteem sensitive individuals. Treatment occurs within the therapeutic relationship through establishing a safe and authentic relationship, which is emotionally unconditional. In addition, this includes giving them space to lie at times, because the confessional aspect that usually follows is enormously healing when treated skillfully.
LTK: How do you get to the root of the problem when you don't know for sure if the person is lying while in the therapy session?
AS: I get this question a lot from anxious partners of compulsive liars, and it is a good question! Firstly, therapy is not policing and thus should not feel at all like an interrogation. Second, people lie in psychotherapy all the time (defenses are rampant and understandable) whether they have a compulsive lying problem or not. Perhaps ironically, compulsive liars actually end up lying less than many other clients because they seem to get a sense of how emotionally freeing vulnerability can be in the presence of a safe and accepting other.
LTK: How long does it typically take someone to recover from a compulsive lying disorder?
AS: In my experience, people notice substantial changes in a few sessions, but shame based disorders and anxiety can take up to a couple of years of weekly psychotherapy to fully resolve. Although it may take a handful of sessions to break the lying habit (with the aid of my hypnotherapy and NLP services) the person then is left with "Great, but now how do I do relationships now that I feel vulnerable?" The unfamiliar can be frightening, even if it's healthy. Shame itself is a cover. Self-deception can take quite a bit of time to unravel and resolve, usually through the safety of the counseling relationship whereby the person feels safe and accepted by the counselor for long enough, at which time they can internalize the new relational template as a healthy internal working model for other relationships. And, on the plus side they always retain a bit of a lie detector so they don't go off on the other extreme and become hopelessly naïve or a doormat/people pleaser.
Help Outside of Therapy
LTK: What are some ways people can help their lying disorder outside of counseling?
- Meditate using mindfulness based practices. Mindfulness is a cornerstone of changing an insecure attachment style into a secure attachment complex, not only negating the apparent need to lie but shielding them against the affects of future overwhelming feelings. Mindfulness helps you attend to your thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviors without self-criticism, but also without avoidance; thus achieving the middle path compulsive liars really need within themselves and their relationships.
- Practice self-hypnosis, establishing a trusting relationship with your unconscious mind - find a good self-hypnosis recording on compulsive lying, or even general deep relaxation. Here's the clincher - as you're drifting off to sleep at night, gently repeat a few times to your inner self-"I trust you." Say it slowly as if you mean it exactly. The word "you" implies that you have an inner self. This inner self is trustworthy at his or her core. And, if you want to deepen your new relationship with yourself further, you can then say "You will remember dreams." Then note your dreams and begin to discover hidden messages about yourself being communicated… the more you know about yourself in a deeper way without judgment, the more self esteem and security you build inside you, which means less of a perceived need to tell lies.
- Create a simple practical plan to tell a certain number of (let's say three) truths a day, write them down, follow through. Then test yourself after by mindfully asking yourself, "Was this as bad as I had imagined?" Validate your achievements and don't berate yourself for relapses or errors.
LTK: How likely is it that people relapse into lying again after treatment?
AS: Highly likely… if all they do is work with their thoughts and behaviors. Unfortunately, approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, while helpful up to a point, are the treatments of choice for many therapists. However, I find so many people who have had this kind of 'shorter term' counseling revert to old ways because the underlying cause was missed, or not ample time was spent establishing a secure attachment. On the other hand, if a person stays for a realistic course of therapy with an empathic counselor and does the work, is willing to work through his/her issues, chances of relapse are dramatically reduced or negated.