ask polly

‘Why Can’t I Stop Lying All the Time?’

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Dear Polly,

I feel like an awful shell of a person because I often base my worth on the perception others have of me. That’s not to say I’m extremely social, shallow, or reliant on popularity; I’m simply a friendly introvert who wants people to like me. And throughout my whole life, I’ve lied to avoid disapproval.

When I was a child, I had paralyzing anxiety. I was afraid of everything — dogs, cats, the pool, socializing at family parties, getting sick, you name it. I often thought I had illnesses I did not have. For example, when I was 10 or so, I read a book about a little girl who had leukemia, and for the next five years, I was convinced I had it too. When I was 14, I saw a movie in health class about HIV and I was sure I had that, too. You can probably imagine the anxiety this caused me on a daily basis. I have loving, well-meaning parents, but they didn’t always know how to handle my reactions to my fear. I was hushed when I cried too loudly, and I was told on a few occasions that I “always have to ruin everything.” I truly didn’t do any of this for attention. My fear was just bigger than I was. Though my anxiety is very much under control now and therapy has become a regular part of my life, the shame I felt as a child lives with me to this day.

I avoid situations in which I might be exposed to criticism, and as much as I believe in being assertive (I’m an opinionated, outspoken feminist), I too often aim to please others instead. I’m now 29, and I feel like I can’t stop myself. I rarely consider my own feelings about what I want, and I regularly lie. I don’t tell elaborate stories in order to impress; I tell casual fibs that build up and cause more conflict than they do peace. For example, on multiple occasions I have made plans for the same day with more than one friend. Not wanting to let anyone down and have them think less of me, I wait until the last minute to make up an excuse as to why I cannot hang out with one of them. This creates so much stress, and when I do it, I feel silly — why can’t I just avoid trouble by telling one friend I’m busy from the very start?

Even worse, my lying has affected my work performance. I have a friendly boss who is only a little older than I am, but she is much more organized and high-strung. She gets frustrated by having to explain processes to me more than once or twice. This makes me hesitate to ask for help or an extension. Twice over the last eight months, I’ve let small lies about my tasks ruin her impression of me as a worker. I have a different work style than others (my brain functions best in the evening as opposed to the morning), I have ADHD, and I procrastinate like my life depends on it. I worry that I’m just a lazy, dull person, but deep down, I know that this isn’t the job for me. I need to find some meaning in what I do, otherwise it’s hard to care enough to give it my all. My job is technical and systems-based, but I’m a creative, sensitive person who would excel in an environment where I can help others. But I feel selfish for complaining while so many people are unemployed right now.

I’ve been caught in lies at my job, and I feel childish and dumb, but I don’t want my boss to be annoyed that I haven’t begun the assignment that was due a day ago. Instead of emailing her with an apology and the truth, I tell her I’ve completed it. When she finds out I haven’t or that I did so after having told her I did, I realize that the lie made things much worse than the truth would have. It’s mortifying, too. Each time I’ve been confronted, I’ve cried while I came up with more excuses. Though I’m looking into applying for grad school, I’m worried I’ll lose my job. Then I worry I’ll never be able to thrive in this world. I have always considered myself to be an intelligent person who means no harm, but a smart, kind person wouldn’t act this way.

When I look at my life, all I see is a desperately unfulfilled woman who digs holes for herself by being dishonest with the people around her. I lie, but for what? It’s like I never learn. I feel deeply sad, pathetic, and ashamed of my dishonesty. In all of my attempts not to disappoint others, I’ve disappointed myself most of all.

Unhappy Liar

Dear Unhappy Liar,

Even though you’re admitting that you’re a liar, I trust you because you’re telling me the unvarnished truth about your big problem. People who are honest about their biggest flaws and challenges feel trustworthy and reliable, particularly when they don’t blame other people for their own weaknesses. Will such people let you down in one way or another, because they’re so flawed? Maybe, but you’ll recognize that possibility from the outset, so their problems won’t create confusion and disappointment in your life. Plus, you’ll have the deep satisfaction of helping them when their problem comes up, because they’ll tell you about it. You can connect with people who are honest about their problems, and feel for them. You can give them your love.

People who lie in order to cover up their problems are very hard to love, hard to reach, hard to support or even tolerate. Even if they’re not blaming you for their lies, the lies themselves start to feel like a way of evading responsibility for their actions. Trying to speak to liars or help them is incredibly frustrating. This includes people who lie to themselves and tell elaborate stories to remain safe from judgment (yours and their own). Liars aren’t satisfying to know. Trying to engage with liars is like trying to live inside a fun house, where the walls and the floors move and there’s a new hall of mirrors around every corner. Who wants to feel dizzy and exhausted all the time, when you’re only trying to help and support someone?

What I like about you is that you’re not lying to yourself and you’re not blaming anyone else. What we’re battling here is avoidance, anxiety, and shame. Those three things, while ENORMOUS AND UNRELENTING, while demanding a ton of careful focus and hard work and patience, do not damn you to a life of failing to thrive or connect with others. So let’s start there: You’re going to be just fine. Even though it feels extreme right now, your lying problem hasn’t ruined anything big yet.

You’re not trying to mess with anyone. You’re just running away. But with every new lie, things get worse. You’re so anxious and avoidant that you’re only living for this moment: All you want is relief right now. You don’t care about what happens next, so it doesn’t help to tell you, “If you remove this stone, the whole dam will break and millions of gallons of water will come crushing down on top of you,” because YOU ARE ALREADY GETTING CRUSHED.

You need to think about taking something for your anxiety, if you’re not doing that already. You’re exactly the type of person who decides never to do that because you’re too hard on yourself (the way your parents were too hard on you), and you don’t believe, at some level, that you deserve to feel calm and good. You were taught not to take any shortcuts. Maybe, in some ways, the extra work that your lies create is part of that picture, too: Your lies are a way of punishing yourself for being a bad person. You’re essentially trying to get caught. You want everyone to see what a lying piece of garbage you are, so you don’t have to hide anymore. You want to be seen clearly and also punished, so you can stop feeling anxious and fearful and crushed all the time.

But when you are seen clearly, when the truth is on the table in front of everyone, that kicks up your shame. It doesn’t feel good. So you do what you always do: You find some way to hide from the shame. You can’t handle how insecure showing yourself makes you feel. You look for the quick fix of lies. They’re almost like an addiction created by the anxious loops you enter because you haven’t figured out how to feel calm and good and loved by other people or yourself.

So I would start by asking your therapist to connect you with a psychiatrist to talk about your anxiety and your fears and phobias. None of these things had to take over your life, you just weren’t given enough space or acceptance to sort through them. That doesn’t mean your parents are terrible; they’re just flawed humans like you and they’re probably anxious, too, so your anxiety triggered theirs and they got all locked up around the problem instead of sitting with it and calmly experimenting with new paths.

If you’re already taking something for anxiety or you don’t want to take anything, I would consider integrating more exercise into your daily routine, if you can. When I hit a peak of anxiety in my early 30s, I started to run and hike every day and everything shifted. I had terrible habits in general, but I started to notice how my entire life felt less difficult and ominous when I simply forced myself to move more often.

You also need to closely examine your fears and insecurities. At your age, I was afraid of other people – particularly happy, successful people, because they made me feel insecure. I had trouble being myself around authority figures, and I was afraid to try anything fun and challenging, career-wise, because I was afraid to fail. I was also mildly agoraphobic because I worked from home and fell into a rut easily. Anxious people love routines and safety. But we don’t realize how bored we are. We kind of crave boredom, because it keeps us from feeling crushed. But then our underlying restlessness fuels our addictive behaviors: lying, drinking, spending too much time online, etc. In your case, these addictive behaviors include saying “yes” to everyone and avoiding conflict and ducking when the shit hits the fan instead of facing it.

I don’t want you to live a safe, boring life because you’re too overwhelmed by your anxiety and your ADHD to try anything. And I agree that you’ll be much more motivated once you’re doing something you actually care about. Some of us just can’t perform well at jobs we hate. It’s not like that’s hard to understand! But I didn’t give myself what I wanted for years, in my career or in my personal life. I didn’t feel like I deserved it, and I was also incredibly afraid and insecure. I was only brave and expansive when I was drinking or heavily caffeinated. The rest of my life was a slow-motion fall: sadness, evasion, jittery half-assed connections, worry, and a tireless effort to run away from who I really was.

Don’t live that way. Today is your day to welcome your liar out of the closet and into the light. Write down a list of ways to do battle with your anxiety. Make yourself a clear schedule that works for you, in all of your peculiarities, and includes exercise (why do we treat schedules like they’re oppressive when they solve so many problems?). Talk to trusted friends. Consider having a calm conversation with your boss about anxiety and ADHD. Think about new ways to time and structure your work so that you enjoy it more. Examine the “fixes” you turn to when you’re anxious. Think carefully about how you avoid other people and keep them from loving you fully. Be extremely honest with yourself, the way you were in your letter to me, and write these things down and leave them in a place where you’re reminded of them so you don’t just lose the thread and go back to bad habits repeatedly.

Part of the leap here is from a place of trying to please others in the present to a more sustainable place where you ask for what you need to thrive in the future. In order to make that leap, you have to resolve to see yourself as someone who’s good and lovable even when your big problems are showing. That was the final twist in my own path to happiness: learning to show myself, flaws and all. I mean, look, I have a career where I tell people what to do. It wasn’t a small thing for me to admit that I’m a complicated and difficult person. I wanted to tell friendlier, more forgiving stories instead. But who can love a story that’s based on a lie?

When I stopped hiding, people liked me a million times more. I became sturdy and concrete and reachable. I wasn’t a confusing hurricane of anxiety and shame and desperate attempts to hide anymore. I could feel love from other people and give love to other people in a new way. The world got less frightening. I became calmer and more accepting of myself, which made me less avoidant and also less into procrastinating, which is a side effect of shame. All of these big changes happened simply because I no longer forced myself to be a smiling, convenient people pleaser. I became a strange blend of Zen garden and wildfire instead. I let myself take the shape of my moods. Sometimes people find me a little intense, a little unpredictable, but I’m much more calm and trustworthy overall. You don’t know who you’ll get when you pick up the phone to call me, but you do know that I won’t lie to you.

I want that for you, too. Instead of trying to please people, I want you to have the freedom and peace of mind to be exactly as imperfect as you are, out in the open, without fear. When you stop lying, people will be forced to grapple with a real person instead of a mirage. At first they’ll find that confusing. But over time, as they watch the unhappy quicksand they always knew turn into an empty beach on a breezy fall afternoon, they’ll love what they see and they’ll trust you much more.

Make some space at the center of your life for your shame and your fears. Everyone struggles with these things. You’re not alone. Look at your problems with open eyes every day, and resist the urge to erase or fix anything. It’s time to start welcoming the truth and loving your broken, wild, unpredictable self instead of running away all the time. You’re exhausted. Lie down in the sunshine and feel where you are and let it be enough.


Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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‘Why Can’t I Stop Lying All the Time?’