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Clear but subtle differences exist between people who lie pathologically and those who lie compulsively. The two phenomena, compulsive lying and pathological lying, are often confused with one another or seen as interchangeable, but there are significant differences in motivation and practice.

Compulsive liars and pathological liars both lie frequently, but they do so for different reasons and this can pose different problems for those with whom they have contact.

Pathological Liars

Pathological liars lie with what might be called “intent”. They have a clear purpose or aim they hope to achieve through lying. They can be manipulative and cunning and normally care little for the opinions or feelings of others. Pathological liars simply want things their own way. Pathological lying is often a smaller part of a bigger picture, and frequently seen in personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder (the latter of which would informally be referred to as sociopathy). 

Compulsive Liars

A compulsive liar is someone who has little or no control over the lies he or she tells. Lying, for them, is habitual and constant. They may lie about anything and in any situation. They lie to avoid the truth, perhaps because they find telling the truth uncomfortable, or for no reason at all.

It appears that low self-esteem is a significant factor in the development of a compulsive liar. The condition may be developed whilst in childhood and in most cases, compulsive liars are relatively harmless. They lie habitually and may be aware of doing so, but find themselves unable to stop. They may be afraid that the world would reject their true self. 

Comparison between pathological and compulsive lying

Pathological liars create an alternate reality for themselves, and if they meet their goal those they interact with, to inhabit. They may at times believe in their own lies and become unable to separate their lies from the truth. This means that pathological liars have no problem lying brazenly about apparent episodes in their lives in order to gain favor or admiration, or to get someone to do something for them by inducing pity. Their stories may change over time and they may act defensively when confronted.

On the other hand, compulsive liars have little or no motive for lying. They lie simply because they cannot help but do so or because they find the truth uncomfortable. Unlike pathological liars, compulsive liars do not have a particular goal in mind when lying.

Certain psychological conditions may also affect the type of liar a person may be or become. For instance, those people who suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be pathological liars, while compulsive liars can occasionally be sufferers of ADHD, Bipolar Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. It must also be pointed out that a compulsive liar may not in fact suffer from any mental disorder. Lying is a symptom that may present as part of a diagnosis, but "pathological liar" or "compulsive liar" are descriptors, and not diagnoses on their own.

Treatment for habitual lying

As for treatment, these conditions can only be properly addressed after an admission on the part of the sufferer and a will to stop the lying. Professional help should be sought and help from those in contact with the sufferer — personally and professionally — will have a bearing on the success or failure of the treatment.

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