Can you remember the last time you told a lie? If it was a whopper, did you feel guilty afterward? Chances are you did feel a little internal struggle inside you and sensations of guilt and shame. Don’t worry, that’s normal, and it means you’re not a compulsive or pathological liar.
We all lie occasionally; it’s part of the human condition. Lying isn’t socially acceptable behavior, which is why we feel guilty after deceiving someone. If you don’t feel any guilt or shame, then you should get yourself evaluated by a psychiatrist.
But why do you feel guilty after telling lies? It’s not like you hurt anybody, hopefully. Lying involves a complex cognitive process in the brain, and like all the actions we take in life, there are consequences. This post unpacks the different types of lies we tell and how they impact our psychology.
Understanding the Difference Between the Types of Lies We Tell
Lies don’t exist on a flat scale; there are levels to this activity. It’s more of a spectrum, with innocent white lies on one side and whoppers on the other. We all tell white lies and probably tell them more often than we realize.
For instance, your partner might ask you if you enjoyed the party. Despite thinking it was a mess, you told them it was great. Or a friend invites you over for the football game, and you tell them you can’t come because your partner is giving you a hard time about going out, despite her having no issue with it – you just didn’t want to leave the house.
Then there are whoppers. These lies are a different story. Whoppers are complex, well-constructed lies we tell for reasons like avoiding punishment or to help us manipulate others. For instance, a person steals something and claims they didn’t, creating a wild story to convince the accuser that they can’t be responsible.
It’s interesting to note that while lies come in different grades along a sliding scale, the truth is the truth. There’s no variation or spectrum involved in telling the truth. You either tell the truth, or you lie, that’s it. Lying takes a considerable effort, especially in the case of telling whoppers. We must activate the creative centers in our brains and those involved with long-term memory.
Telling a white lie isn’t half as challenging as making up a whopper. However, when pressed to do it, our brain leaps into action.
Why Do We Lie?
We lie for many reasons, but experts agree nine general reasons force us into this behavior.
- To avoid punishment.
- To protect other people from punishment.
- To obtain a reward we think isn’t achievable through telling the truth.
- s not otherwise readily obtainable
- To protect ourselves from physical or psychological harm.
- To gain admiration from others.
- To avoid awkward social scenarios.
- To avoid being embarrassed.
- To control information and manipulate people.
These reasons for lying from our motivation for the behavior. Motive plays a strong role in our decision to lie, laying the foundation for our deceit. If we don’t have any incentive to lie, we won’t bother doing it. At the end of the day, it’s just easier for us to tell the truth.
There are plenty of other motivations apart from these nine that might cause us to lie. However, these nine represent the most common triggers for lying. Feeling lazy or bored, denying something, suppressing information, coveting something, sympathizing with another person, being indifferent to our environment, and vindictive or defensive behavior are all other motivations that might cause us to lie.
When we’re in a situation that sparks one of these motives, we might decide to tell a lie, and the details of the accusation or reason for lying determine the scale of the lie we tell.
What Happens in Our Brain When We Tell a Lie?
Surprisingly, telling a lie takes a lot of brain power, certainly more than telling the truth. When we lie, we need to reach into our memory to retrieve an experience we can use as a framework for our lie. For instance, your partner asks you where you went this morning, and you don’t want to tell them you went to the jewelry store to buy them a birthday gift. Doing so might ruin the surprise.
However, you haven’t thought of a fake excuse to tell them yet, so you have to come up with one on the spot. Your brain automatically reaches back into your memory and remembers how you went to the bank during work a few days ago. It brings up this memory almost instantaneously, and you tell your partner you went to the bank to apply for a replacement credit card because you lost the original last week at work.
Now, it takes a millisecond or so for you to form this lie, and your partner might notice that you had to think about it if you didn’t have the lie prepared. Their internal radar might trigger and make them suspicious of your answer.
Some people are better liars than others. If you lie frequently, you’ll find you’re better at the behavior. So, you’ll come up with the lie faster than if you don’t lie regularly. That’s because processing this cognitive behavior takes the brain time. The more you lie, the better your brain becomes at the task of lying.
Lying & Guilt Explained
The feeling of guilt is challenging to put into words, but we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. We usually feel guilt for an action we’ve taken or a thought we have. Generally, it occurs when these processes don’t line up with our beliefs, culture, or ethical boundaries.
While guilt is a negative emotion, it can have a positive impact. It forces us to regain our moral ground by forcing us to make sound decisions. Guilt and shame press us into a corner, causing us to make a morally upright decision to remove it from our conscience.
When we experience excessive guilt, it weighs heavily on our conscience and impacts our mental health. If we don’t confront these feelings of shame and guilt, it develops into anxiety and depression. If we continue to ignore it, it can manifest in physical disorders.
What are the Signs We’re Feeling Guilty?
When guilt starts to rack our conscience, we feel sensations of anxiety around it that might drive us into depressive thoughts. If we don’t handle it, we might develop problems with our sleep, muscular tension, and even digestive disorders.
The emotional and social symptoms associated with guilt often hide in our everyday actions. We might try to justify the reasons for our guilt, but it won’t make any difference. Some of the signs of guilt include the following.
- Sensitivity to the effects of our actions.
- Overwhelm produced by making bad decisions.
- Low self-image and self-esteem.
- Putting others before ourselves at the expense of our safety and health.
- Avoiding our emotions.
Guilt and Mental Health Disorders
Feelings of guilt left unattended can create problems with our mental health. OCD, anxiety, and depression are some examples of the adverse effects of excessive guilt in our lives.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
OCD involves experiencing recurring actions (compulsions) and thoughts (obsessions) that we find uncontrollable. Guilt acts as a predecessor for OCD behavior. You might keep the thought contributing to your guilt in your mind for a long time and dwell on it.
This guilt causes an obsession regarding the actions or thoughts bothering you. To ease these thoughts, you’ll make reparations. However, focusing on the guilt constantly and the compulsion to make things right never ends, resulting in an embedded obsessive-compulsive behavior. Typically, this form of guilt arises in your mind because you went against your beliefs or moral code.
Feelings of depression and guilt feed off each other, with guilt enabling the onset of depressive symptoms. It manifests in your life as feeling depressed, compounding with time. Guilty emotions are usually irrational because we create perceptions of our failures that keep running around in our minds.
Your actions reflect your emotional state, causing their perpetual continuation in your perception and awareness. The relationship between depression and guilt creates a negative feedback loop where you become immersed in negative thoughts.
They spiral out of control until they are all-consuming in our thoughts. Spotting this feedback loop is the first stage in breaking the cycle of depression caused by your guilt.
Dealing With Feelings of Guilt
Unfortunately, there’s no pill you can take to remove feelings of excessive guilt from your thinking. It takes emotional work to overcome these feelings. Using reflection and constant mindfulness of your need to break free from guilt are two strategies for breaking free from the cycle.
Ask yourself why you feel guilty and what actions or thoughts are running through your head because of your guilt. Make a list of the lies you told that you feel guilty about, and make a plan to remove them from your thoughts.
You can use positive reinforcement through self-talk to help you overcome these issues. However, in some cases, confessing your lies might be the only solution to overcoming and removing the guilt in your life.
Do Compulsive Liars Feel Guilty?
A compulsive liar is someone that lies all the time. They do it because they feel more comfortable telling lies than they do telling the truth. Compulsive liars usually lie to make themselves feel important or cover their behavior that others might find boring, disrespectful, unethical, or uncompelling.
Compulsive liars know that they’re lying, and they understand the difference between right and wrong. However, they generally feel little to no guilt about telling lies. They’ll usually come clean if you confront them about their behavior and accuse them of lying.
These people typically entrench this behavior in their psyche and personality when they’re young. They might discover they can get away with lying to their parents, teacher, or friends, and they decide it’s a better choice than telling the truth.
They carry this behavior through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. In most cases, compulsive liars grow out of the behavior in their early adulthood. Usually, it’s easy to spot a compulsive liar because they tell unbelievable lies and make gestures and facial expressions that give them away. They also might ramble when making a lie or confuse the details of a story when repeating the lie.
Do Pathological Liars Feel Guilty?
A pathological liar also lies a lot. They have many of the same traits as a compulsive liar. However, they usually have an underlying mental disorder causing their condition. For instance, it’s common for people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) to develop pathological lying behavior.
However, pathological liars generally make up better, more believable lies than compulsive liars. If they suffer from ASPD, there’s also a chance that they have sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies. Sociopathic or psychopathic pathological liars don’t feel guilty about the lies they tell.
They’ll lie with the intention of manipulating or hurting people, and they don’t care about the pain they cause others with their behavior. It’s also common for these people to believe the lies they tell.
Does a Polygraph Machine Detect Our Guilt?
The lie detector machine doesn’t detect feelings of guilt or shame in examinees. Instead, it looks for the activation of the “fight-or-flight (FoF) response. The FoF is an autonomic response made by the sympathetic nervous system when we tell a lie in a high-pressure environment, such as a polygraph exam.
Most people will trigger the FoF when they have to lie in a polygraph exam. However, pathological liars, especially those with sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies, may avoid detection because their brain doesn’t process the stimulus needed for the SNS to launch the FoF.
So, if you feel guilty about a lie, it’s more likely that your psychology primes you to activate the FoF, and that’s what the lie detector machine tracks and uses to indicate deception in your answers.