It can make us feel crazy trying to figure out how to tell when narcissists are lying. We know they’re doing it, and yet we may spend hours researching how to make a narcissist tell the truth.
One of the core features of narcissistic abuse is false reality construction, consisting of a variety of tactics that spin a counterfeit world where the narcissist’s chosen target can be completely controlled.
These tactics include love-bombing using a manufactured persona, pathological lying, gaslighting, future-faking, and other methods of using falsehoods to manipulate and abuse.
Once wrapped up in this fantasy, the narcissist’s partner can no longer tell for sure when the narcissist is lying or telling the truth. Truthfulness is beside the point for the narcissist. When he or she makes a statement, they expect the partner to take it at face value, as they string words together to try to gain our trust or extract something.
In a long-term relationship with a narcissist, conversations are exercises in anxiety and madness, logical puzzles that are seemingly unsolvable. Surely, some of it must be true, right? It seems impossible to tell which parts that might be, however.
If you pay attention, however, there are actually eight ways you can be reasonably sure that they are giving it to you straight. This is not to say that they are never telling you the truth at other times, only that these are times you can likely count on to get the real story.
How to Tell When Narcissists are Not Lying
1. Angry Confessions
You know those times when he or she is flying into a rage about something and they start spitting out verbal daggers and trying to wound you? Listen carefully and you may hear what they’ve been up to.
They may threaten to do things they’ve already been doing as a way to try to justify their actions and blame you (“I wasn’t cheating, but I will now!”).
Or if they are really upset, they may just tell you straight out what they have been doing to try to hurt you. Later, they will come back when they want to hoover you back or they have forgotten their anger and say that what they said wasn’t true.
Nope, that’s the part that is likely to be the lie.
2. Warning You About Who They Are
There may be times near the beginning of the relationship or even later during hoovering stages when they try to tell you what they are–not necessarily that they are narcissists, but that they are going to hurt you.
They may tell you that they are “a bad person,” fully expecting you to disagree with them, but they’ll say it anyway. They may even come out right out and tell you that you should leave because they will only hurt you.
Looking back, my ex-boyfriend did this in a lot of ways, but there was one way in particular that strikes me, as I can only see in retrospect what it was. There was a song that was popular during the first summer that I was in the relationship with him, and he would look deliberately at me and sing the chorus every time we heard it:
“I’m going to love you until you hate me
I’m going to show you what’s really crazy
You should have known better than to mess with me harder
I’m going to love you, I’m going to love you, I’m going to love you like a black widow baby”
He seemed so blatantly to be singing those words to me, that after it happened a few times, I finally asked him, laughing because I wasn’t taking it seriously, why he would want me to love him until I hated him, and he suddenly seemed to become oblivious to what he was singing and shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
It may not always occur consciously. Sometimes they may let something slip out when they’re drunk about their true intentions.
For whatever reason though, they need to drop hints and feel the need to let what’s behind the mask leak out a little sometimes. Take them at their word.
3. Telling You the Opposite of What They’re Doing
Sometimes they verbally tell you the exact opposite of what they are actually doing, but in doing that, they are giving you the truth of the situation. This can be difficult to detect, but there are some things to look for.
First, it is usually delivered calmly. They are trying to divert your attention from the actual behavior, so unlike in #1 where there is an aggressive outburst, this is a calculated lie, so they don’t want to arouse your suspicions with any exaggerated emotions.
Second, it is usually mentioned out of place or at an odd time.
For instance, my ex would often say at times if we were having a disagreement, “I’m not cheating on you, but I could if I wanted to.”
It was out of place and inappropriate, irrelevant to our discussion. He said it so many times, it stood out and eventually the thought crossed my mind: “Of course you could if you wanted to, so why bother saying it if it’s not true?” And that was the point.
In another more concrete example, my ex randomly texted me once and suddenly tried to convince me he was deleting Skype from his cell phone using some screenshots as visual props– except he wasn’t aware that I happened to know that he was lying about it and was using it at that very moment with someone else.
If they are trying to throw you off the scent of something, they may try this tactic, so if you pay attention you may notice one of these “opposite” statements when it sticks out in the context of a conversation or your interactions with them.
4. Projection Onto You
This is a psychological defense mechanism that we all use when we don’t want to deal with our own thoughts or feelings.
It is frequently used by narcissists, however, because they cannot bear to see themselves as anything less than perfect. They cannot deal with feeling shame, and rather than face the parts of themselves they would find reprehensible if they had to confront them, they accuse you of doing the things they have done.
If they start accusing you without cause of lying, cheating or similar actions and you have never given them a reason to think they actually happened, they are telling you what they have secretly been up to.
5. Burying Their Actions In Strange Questions
They may ask you a random or out-of-the-blue question about yourself and you will wonder where it came from. This is similar to projection in that the admission is hidden in what is being directed at you.
My ex once asked me if I had any hidden apps on my phone. I didn’t even know what a hidden app was. I knew that he wanted to know generally was if I was hiding anything from him but it didn’t cross my mind until later that that particular question was actually a specific line from his own script and an admission of his own guilt.
He admitted to having a hidden app much later when it dawned on me and I asked him during one of those times when he had promised to “give me answers” and closure.
Narcissists always ask questions and feel as if it’s their business to know everything you’re up to, but in this case, it’s different. Look for very specific questions. Instead of something like, “Have you been meeting any new men/women?” they may ask, “Have you been meeting men/women off of [insert brand new dating site of the month]?”
When narcissists ask these questions, it’s still definitely a form of controlling or monitoring, but they don’t realize that they’re actually truth-telling about what is going on in their own lives.
6. Projection Onto Others
If you remember that they can’t face up to any of their own negative behavior, that means any accusations made against others that involve the narcissist should be taken with a grain of salt.
If you hear stories from them about people in their past doing horrible things to them– that their exes cheated on them, abused them, stalked them, or lied to them, for example, then you can guess that, just as they project their bad current behavior onto you, they are also likely projecting their bad past behaviors onto others.
Not only did their exes probably never do those things, it was likely the narcissist who did those things to them!
In addition, if they get caught doing something, they will likely project the blame onto others for that as well. For instance, if they tell you the other person begged them to spend the night together, what they probably mean is that they cajoled the other person into spending the night with them.
Be wary if you hear the narcissist try to blame others, as you already know what he or she is capable of. The real story is that he or she is probably actually telling you what they did instead.
7. Partial Truths
I figured this one out by learning the truth about some things my ex-boyfriend had lied to me about, but not immediately letting him know that I knew the truth for safety reasons. I learned a lot about how he managed his lies when he didn’t know I knew about them.
One of the ways he did it was by telling me and others partial truths. It’s probably too difficult to come up with a complete lie on the spot or maybe too time-consuming to try to keep track of all of the lies if they aren’t tied to reality somehow. So there was a grain of truth in many of the things he would tell me.
Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience (1993), describes the “partial truth” phenomenon among the psychopaths he interviewed. He describes how one woman he interviewed admitted to “salting the mine” with nuggets of truth because if others thought some of what she said was true then they were more likely to believe everything else she said.
“I sometimes tell the truth about something bad about myself. They’d think, well, if she’s admitting to that she must be telling the truth about all the rest,” the woman said (p. 47).
This is the most difficult of all the ways of knowing how the narcissist is telling the truth because you can’t know you’re being told a partial truth any more than you know you’re being told a whole truth.
Knowledge is power, however. Once I realized that he was doing this at all, it helped me to realize that was why sometimes I could not decide whether he was telling the truth or lying. A partial truth is still a lie.
If I was trying to figure out whether something was really true and it didn’t fall into any of these other categories, then it was probably a partial truth. Especially in retrospect, I can see how a lot of things that had me confused probably contained a grain of truth that made it hard for me to pin him down to a lie because it was really a lie tied to a truth to help him tell it.
Do you find anything confusing like this in your conversations with the narcissist in your life? Are there any pieces that could be true but something isn’t quite right about the way it’s being told. Listen to your gut.
8. Their Actions
Finally, if nothing they said or did fits into any of these categories to help you figure out what they actually mean, feel or think (i.e., what the truth is), just stop listening. Pretend you can mute what they say and just watch how they behave. Turn the volume down on what comes out of their mouths, cover their texts with your hand, don’t read their E-mails… what’s left?
What are they actually doing?
Communicating doesn’t count as an action. What they get up and do when they aren’t trying to persuade you about something–on a sustained basis– should tell you the truth about how they feel, what they want, and what they intend.
I’ll warn you, though… this one is the hardest truth to face of all. Once you drown out all of their words and just watch their actions, you learn what motivates them underneath it all.
What you will likely learn by watching all of their behavior over the long-term is that they are only motivated by loyalty to themselves, regardless of what they say to you or to anyone else.
So how can you make a narcissist tell the truth? You really can’t. But you can listen carefully to what it is they say when their own guard is low through alcohol or anger or when their words don’t quite add up or match their actions.
Because narcissists speak the direct truth so rarely, the patterned ways in which they try to control the truth actually end up making them more transparent than we may think they are. The thing about listening when narcissists use these ways of telling us the truth is that 99.9% of the time, what we learn will be something we don’t want to hear.
Then, at that point, it’s up to us to figure out what to do with it. The truth is right in front of us if we acknowledge it and allow it to sink in.
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