My six-year-old son told his first lie to me recently. (The first lie that I know of, I should say.) I heard a crash in the living room and when I entered, I saw a broken candle holder on the floor. He was clutching his "Star Wars" plane and looked terrified.
"What happened?" I asked.
According to licensed psychologist Elaine Ducharme, who runs a private practice in Glastonbury, Conn., telling a lie is as common as taking a shower.
"Research suggests that most people tell about one lie a day," Ducharme said. "Whether it's telling your friend that her hair looks great when you think it's awful or something bigger, we all do this to some degree."
So why do we lie?
"Kids come up with some to avoid being embarrassed and it's innocent at that level," Ducharme said. "For grown-ups, it could be to impress someone or maybe you feel your life is boring. You could try to take on a persona to entertain yourself and then to keep up with it you have to keep doing it. And unless someone catches you … this can be intoxicating. And then it becomes a habit."
Chicago based Clinical psychologist Nancy Molitor said lies come in categories.
"There are lies of omission, which are little white lies like not telling your spouse you spent money on a new pair of shoes, and lies of commission, such as having an affair and denying it," Molitor said. "Then there are the lies we tell ourselves, like 'I don't have a problem with alcohol.' "
Ducharme added that sometimes leaving out the truth can be appropriate.
"Telling your friend they look great in that dress when they don't is a way of trying to prevent hurt feelings," she said. "And there are cases, like with something tragic such as suicide, [when] we have to find a way of telling a child a partial truth — sort of like answering the question, 'Where did I come from?' "
But, Molitor said, when you betray trust or the lies become vindictive, irreparable damage can occur.
"I see lots of patients who are in therapy dealing with the aftermath of having been lied to by a person they trusted — a spouse, or a child or an employer," Molitor said.
"I'd say lying to yourself or being chronically lied to by a loved one are the leading causes of failed relationships," she said.
Here are some tips for coping with the liars in your life:
Remember — it might not be about you.
"Telling lies may have to do with low self-esteem because if you have good self-esteem you don't need to make up things about yourself," Ducharme said. "And sometimes a kid has been abused or something is going on and they are lying to protect someone else and themselves. …After a while those lies become a way of life. It's easier to be compassionate if we understand the reasons behind the behavior."
Set a good example.
"Very often this can be learned behavior," Ducharme said. "When kids see their parents lying it becomes acceptable. If you come home from shopping and say, 'We'll just tell Daddy we didn't buy anything and we'll sneak the shoes into the house,' you're saying, 'This is what we do in our family.' "
Know when it's a problem.
"It becomes a problem when the person is lying to hurt you," Ducharme said. "When someone is hurting themselves or others, you need to address it and seek professional help. A sociopath, for example, will lie compulsively and they are really good at it and they don't think of the consequences."