How to Convert a Liar
Trapped inside every liar is a student dying to learn how to tell the truth. Right? An eager Aristotle poised on Plato’s every word? Knowledge is a gift. But the truth is eternal. And worth pursuing. And since most liars start with the slow boil, let’s tackle every un-truth at its shared core: lying is a fear-based activity. Liars don’t want to lose control.
Not telling the whole truth, gaslighting, manipulating, strategically sharing partial truths, sins of omission and outright lying are all soldiers following orders: maintain control. So if you want to convert a liar, wherever they live on the spectrum of truthfulness, you have to convince them to surrender whatever control they think they’re maintaining by lying. “Dethroning” someone who needs power is demonstrably harder than convincing them that The Truth is intrinsically valuable. Hell, they might even agree with you philosophically. But if they’re not ready or wanting to give up control they likely don’t value an egalitarian relationship as much as you do. Know that.
But if you hit your head against the same brick wall(s) enough times and enough different ways maybe, just maybe, they will have the breakthrough you’ve been dreaming of. You will be there at the end of their marathon with water and praise. It will be so beautiful! Surely, if you’re patient enough their gratitude will overwhelm you both at the finish line.
I’m sure the experts can help us forge more specific, more nuanced paths to ease narcissists, sociopaths, compulsive liars and pathological liars back into the fold. But for your garden variety liar who resents you for labeling their behavior, here is a gradual system. Guaranteed to make you cry with both despair and rage. Because if you love a liar that magma will always rise to the surface. You will most likely fail to convert them. But if you’re ready to start, and we’re all so certain it will be different for us, here are some of those brick walls. Try them all for best results.
There are three things that motivate most people to change: consequences, fear or inspiration. But no matter how great any of these are, none will work unless someone is also ready to change.
Even though they’ve given you no reason to believe them and countless reasons to doubt everything they claim, try offering the liar you love your unquestioning faith. Ignore that tiny voice inside you, the gut feeling the reptile brain recognizes even when you can’t articulate it. Talk yourself out of it if you can’t prove your suspicions with evidence that would stand up in court. The legal metaphor isn’t overreaching as confronting a liar will quickly feel like a trial. You may start as the plaintiff but you will instantly become the defendant while they position themselves as judge and jury.
If for a variety of reasons you find yourself in a personal or professional relationship with a lifestyle liar this can be an afront to your sense of decency and normalcy. The truth isn’t scary. So why are they so terrified of it? If you have largely had healthy relationships with stable people it is easier to give a liar the benefit of the doubt. If this is your first liar it will be easy to talk yourself out of the very instincts that kept our ancient ancestors alive. It also means you can avoid the phomotional (a portmanteau for the physicality of emotions) reality of being betrayed until you actually catch them being untruthful. Brace yourself — this can knock your orbit off its axis. If you have only been close to decent people and are only versed in the no-that-dress-doesn’t-make-you-look-fat kind of white lies knowing you’ve been lied to by someone you love is as confusing as it is devastating. But try to stay calm.
Calmly rationalize with them
If you catch someone in a provable lie, thoughtfully explain every nuance of their every decision to them and calmly share how those decisions can affect those who love them or count on them. Softly tell them how much it hurts to be disappointed without actually blaming them for hurting and disappointing you. To suddenly wonder if you have to question everything they’ve already said. To dread that you might have to doubt everything they are going to say moving forward.
Since liars hate to be called liars as much as cheaters hate being called cheaters, they might try to sleight-of-hand the topic and make it about your anger. While the betrayal may seem like the obvious offense to you they will gaslight — your anger about the betrayal will become the most pressing issue. Some liars will try to make the issue that you’re a ‘name-caller’, that you’re overreacting or that you’re overly emotional. Others will employ another lie and claim it was a mistake. Stay the course. Calmly state facts. Even though you are the wronged party most liars will shut down if they have to admit their own mistake and comfort you for it at the same time. It’s too much. They can’t abide. So try creating a kind and encouraging learning experience for them where they are safe to admit their mistakes and grow from them. Not only will it likely not work, but your kindness might also even make them feel like they ‘won’ the argument. This will enable them to maintain their sense of control and continue, if not exacerbate their lying.
Lead by example
Try sharing a painful truth of your own. If they see you struggling with fear or shame, doubt and anxiety maybe they will be both inspired and humbled by your humanness. Your selfless and gracious gesture will model fallibility for them. They will feel liberated by this new knowledge that it’s ok to be wrong, that being wrong doesn’t make you weak or stupid. That it’s worth admitting when you’re wrong because it maintains trust and allows you to focus on whatever the actual issue is.
Since lying is a fear-based decision, if you can model for a liar that telling the truth, and standing in its aftermath with your head high is not terrifying maybe they will stop seeing it as something they can take advantage of in you. Maybe they will start to see the truth as something they can offer you too.
If you have only had experience with toddlers clumsily lying to stay out of trouble you can try talkng to the adult liar in your life as though they are a child you have authority over. Trying to shame them from a place of moral superiority will surely have them working hard to get out of time-out and reinstate their privileges.
Call them a liar
The difference between a noun and a verb isn’t just grammatical. Call an arsonist an arsonist. If you have already calmly explained that it hurts you when they don’t tell the truth maybe it’s finally time to just fucking say it: You’re a fucking liar.
Standing before this burning building, ignited by every lit match they flicked your way, they will finally realize your frank honesty is the end of the road for them. Perhaps being personally labeled, they’ll be deeply motivated to make their lifestyle into an old dead habit when they can no longer dissociate themselves from their chronic behavior.
It is likely too late to salvage your relationship at this point. But perhaps you have done a good deed that countless degrees of separation will never appreciate. Every person they don’t lie to after you will be spared your pain.
Human relationships are transactional for liars and every interaction is a binary — there can only be a winner and a loser.
Scream at them with your wounded rage
If you are in a professional relationship with a liar this is not an option if you want to keep your job. But if you are in a personal relationship with a compulsive liar, and don’t have neighbors, or don’t care what the neighbors think, maybe it’s time to start screaming. Hearing your raw pain will shock them into an integrity they’ve never had or deliberately avoided developing, right? After all, they were never trying to hurt you, right? They were just trying to protect themselves.
For the liar, the truth has no inherent value, it is something to be bothered with only if it benefits them. It is a tool you can only use for the right job. If it makes their life better or easier. Otherwise, the truth is just a liability. And liabilities jeopardize a liar’s control over your shared reality.
People who chronically lie, people who reflexively lie, people who lie about lying demonstrate that winning is the most important thing to them.
They are not motivated to build the intimacy that is only possible with trust as a foundation. Human relationships are transactional for them and every interaction is a binary — there can only be a winner and a loser.
I value the truth. I think it is intrinsically good and right. Even when it’s hard. Often, especially when it’s hard. But every time you’ve ever stood, heart in hand, and done the right thing, even when you know it will cause you pain, at least you can look yourself in the eye. Whatever value system you believe in, at least you can be at peace with a clean heart.
But you cannot make someone else value what they simply do not. They will feel exposed and vulnerable. Not liberated or elevated.
Lying can be a compulsion, a defense mechanism, an addiction, a congenital birth defect, a psychological disorder, a cultural mutation or any combination therein. And if the liar in your life has built their world around manipulating reality to their advantage there are likely major mutually reinforcing factors — their parents were/are manipulative, they haven’t endured painful consequences because of lying and they have benefited from not telling the truth.
You can’t unravel a knot that tangled. Nor should you waste any of your one short precious life trying.
We are told there are three things that motivate most people to change: consequences, fear or inspiration. But no matter how great any of these are, none will work unless someone is also ready to do the hard work, the emotional labor of change.
The fear of losing you could be a wakeup call. Actually losing you could be a heart-shattering consequence of lying. Inspiring others can be a calling. But you don’t owe it to anyone to be their classroom. Not at your expense. Your life is worth more than an example. You are worth more than someone else’s equal and opposite reaction.
Do not sacrifice yourself to embody a concept for someone else.