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Why Narcissists Lie and How to Make Them Tell the Truth

“You will plead with me to tell the truth. You will promise that there will be no upshot, no comeback, and no consequence, you just, for once want to hear us speak the truth. You know the truth, but you want me to tell you, so you can hear it for once.” – H.G. Tudor, Lies

There may have come a time when you asked them to account for their behavior. You may have gotten conflicting answers or none at all.

There’s a certain sort of sickness to it, a poison in their non-answers that seeps into you a drop at a time until you’re sick with their self-loathing and they’re drunk with their control of you. This non-reality is the very essence of narcissism.

This was the worst part of getting away for me. Just tell me why.

Alignment. I was looking for the alignment in all of the things he had revolving around him that would tell me the universe made sense.

The fact that it didn’t was making me sick inside. In one of our last conversations, he sat two feet away and I tried to talk to him about these realities he’d forged, how they didn’t merge together and I was losing myself.

Could you please just tell me the truth? How could you have…? And why did you…?

A lot of blank staring. There is no monologue. There is no piecing together of story, of thought to thought, of feeling to feeling, of moment to moment, of action to action. Of how he gets from here to there. Jerky starts and stops. A sentence here. A short one there. Mouth opening and closing.

He’d promised me answers and he would use that promise until one of us died to keep me near him if I had allowed it. I thought I could not untangle myself until he made it make sense.

But it could not and did not make sense until he was gone.

He could never have given me the answers I sought. 

Narcissist Lies Are a Tactic of Control

It can make us crazy trying to know how to tell when narcissists are lying and when they are telling the truth. Here are eight ways to know the difference.

It can make us feel crazy trying to figure out how to tell when narcissists are telling the truth and when they are lying. We know they’re not being honest, and yet we may spend hours researching how to figure out when or 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.

Why Narcissists Lie

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1. Narcissists don’t always understand why they do what they do.

If we take a moment to consider our own actions, we do not always act with intent or conscious awareness of what is motivating us. This also holds true for narcissists.

The problem is that they are so focused on themselves and what they are getting out of a situation and how it makes them feel, that they end up frequently taking actions that harm us. They may understand that what they did was bad because it hurt us or that there were consequences, but they cannot explain why.

They are able to suppress their ability to understand the consequences at the time that they act and they lack the insight into themselves to see why or consider that there could be something wrong with them.

2. Narcissists truly believe some of their own lies.

Narcissists engage in something called “splitting,” where they cannot see people, including themselves, as multi-dimensional. They view themselves as either “all good” or “all bad.”

When they see themselves as bad, they feel worthless, empty, invisible, and broken. When they see themselves as good, they feel perfect, special and on top of the world. They craft elaborate fantasy worlds to keep the feeling of being “bad” at bay and will reject anything that tries to pierce those worlds.

In addition, they do not want to admit they have done something wrong because they will have to view themselves as bad– the truth itself may be perceived as a criticism.

3. Narcissists have to pass as normal to get their needs met.

As mentioned above, narcissists know when some of the things that they do are perceived as wrong by others even if they don’t understand (or care about) the full emotional magnitude of what they do. If they didn’t know, they wouldn’t try to conceal their actions. Their lies are what allow them to hide in plain sight and hence get exactly what they need.

The deception is crucial; if they come clean they lose out on potential sources of supply and hurt their reputations.

4. They actually do tell us the truth indirectly but we have to look for it.

They may not answer your questions out loud or their answers may not be satisfactory if they do answer them, but if you pay attention, there are several ways that they tell us exactly who they are, what they are up to and how they really feel when they don’t even realize they are doing it.

They can’t help themselves. 

5. They sometimes tell us the truth directly too but we don’t accept or understand it.

As I described above, I never got a real answer to the questions I asked. Often I’d get the response, “I don’t know.” But a couple of times I got a different response to the question “Why?” instead, often when he was angry:

“Because I wanted to.”

Yes, of course, you did, I’d think. It didn’t seem to tell me anything. It wasn’t until months after I’d been in the period of no-contact with him and done so much reading on how narcissists and sociopaths think that I realized that it actually told me everything.

true

I just hadn’t wanted to hear it. Not in the way he meant it.

Actually, it wasn’t just that I hadn’t wanted to hear it. I hadn’t really been able to understand it in the way that he meant it, not at the time.

How was it possible that he could have wanted to do those things? What thought processes had he used? How had he come to the decision? What feelings had he had around it at the time? How did he get to that point?

I could not fathom a view of the world back then that allowed for the possibility that there was no intermediary step between loving me and betraying me. There was just “Because I wanted to.” 

He didn’t have the insight necessary to explain it, but he had told me the truth.  He’d done it because he wanted to.

Narcissists lack empathy so they do not go “from here to there.”

They lack the ability to truly understand how the things that they do will make you feel. They are driven by the need to avoid feeling worthless and will live their lives doing what they want to do to make that happen.

They will never be able to explain any of this to you.

To explain would mean that:

  • they have the ability to self-reflect;
  • they would have to admit they did something wrong;
  • they would have to feel shame for their actions;
  • they would lose control; and
  • they would lose access to the things they need from us.

The qualities necessary to provide direct answers are not present in the person who has caused you the pain you are now feeling, especially when taken together.

Don’t look to the narcissist for answers.

He or she has none to give.

 

It can make us crazy trying to know how to tell when narcissists are lying and when they are telling the truth. Here are eight ways to know the difference.

How to Make a Narcissist Tell the Truth

If you’ve intereacted with them enough you’ll know that you can’t make them tell you the truth directly. However, you can sometimes either get them to tell you the truth indirectly, or they’ll do it themselves if you pay close enough attention. 

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.

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, “You know, I’m not cheating on you, but I could if I wanted to.” It was out of place and inappropriate, irrelevant to our discussion.

Third, it’s a statement of the obvious that doesn’t need to be said. So why say it at all?

Think about it. Couldn’t anyone cheat if they really wanted to?

It doesn’t need to be said. It’s an “understood idea” within a relationship that anyone could cheat in a relationship if they really wanted to badly enough. 

Within relationships, we take for granted that we are with someone trustworthy and that they’re not cheating on us. We don’t need them to tell us that they could if they wanted to but they’re not.

But someone who has lost their objectivity about what would reassure us because they’re not actually being faithful might think it makes them look trustworthy to say so instead of realizing it just sounds odd to point out the obvious.

And eventually it hit me: my ex said it not once, but many times and it began to stand out. The thought finally 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.  

Here’s another example from my own relationship.  My ex-boyfriend randomly texted me once out of the blue and tried to convince me he was deleting Skype from his cell phone, using some screenshots as visual props to try to show me that he was uninstalling it.

He wasn’t aware that I happened to know that he was lying about it and was using it at that very moment to talk to another woman. She and I were communicating at the same time and she sent me a video of their Skype conversation. 

I had not solicited information from him on Skype. The clue about what was really happening came from him and the suspicious “admission.” 

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, but it was also 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 deciphering the narcissist’s lies from 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 he said that didn’t make sense 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.

Finding the Truth Right in Front of Us

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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Kristen Milstead

Kristen Milstead is a narcissistic abuse survivor who has become a strong advocate for finding your unique voice and using it to help others find theirs.

31 Comments

  1. Thank you so much. After about 18 months wondering whether I was going mad – feeling suicidal – boring my friends to tears asking why, why, why has my friend treated me like this – 18 months that were like swimming under the sea, my vision has cleared. I am not mad! I am not alone!
    I am not young. I have raised children and made a pretty good career in a challenging profession, where among other things I gave lectures and managed people. It was essential in my work to be a good judge of character. And yet –
    Two years ago I met a man 20 years my junior. I did not trust him immediately. But he charmed me: talked about his life and family, told me his ‘secrets’… hours and hours of talking. Good morning and good night WhatsApp messages, and lots during the days… when he changed after 3 months and I deleted the conversation, I saw that he had sent me about 600 messages in that period! We went for walks together – cooked, ate and drank together (always at my place, never at his). He made me many promises (none kept). He talked about our beautiful friendship – that heaven must have sent me to him. I now recognise that he was love bombing me. But at the time I fell for it, hook line and sinker!
    Then he gradually withdrew. I actually told him something had changed, but he denied it. Later it got to the point where he said I was trying to control him! As this was not true, I realised that control was very important to HIM not me. Eventually he gave me the silent treatment. I was very very hurt. After a few months, he came back, stroked my arm, hugged me and said he had not intended to hurt me. We revived the friendship, but again it did not last.
    I was left bewildered. I became obsessed with thoughts of him. I found it so hard to forget how very charming he had been. Yet I realised that he had given me hints of his nature. He said he could be bad (but gave an enigmatic smile when I asked how). He said he felt no remorse. He has never apologised for the ways in which he wounded me.
    Unfortunately, we live a short instance from each other, and regularly bump into each other. At times he totally ignores me, not even saying hello. At other times he sits down next to me and chats amiably. I had said goodbye to him in a message but this does not seem to matter.
    Thanks to you Kristen I am no longer looking for answers. I am reassured that I am sane, although I have been too naive and trusting. This man is poison for me, and I must turn my attention to rewarding activities and genuine friends.

  2. Shaking my head in TN

    I’m just going to simply say, “thank you”. After reading this, I don’t feel as crazy. Sheesh! Funnily, I JUST sent a message to my “narcissistic old friend” about 30 minutes ago simply asking “whyyyyy”. At least now, I won’t wait for or expect an answer.

  3. It’s a wonderful world we live in when you look outside the box and can see there is more than just Tunnel Vision. The forum you have created has in 10 minutes open my eyes Wide Open! There is truth in finding out what you have been dealing with in everyday life happens unfortunately happens to others too. Today, was the first day of the rest of my life where I don’t feel so isolated and singled out. Other people have gone through exactly what I am just now discovering about my man. Sad day.
    I have been on what has seemed like a never-ending ride in the TUNNEL OF TURMOILTUOUS LOVE. The Carnival ride (our relationship) was, NO STILL IS so bad that I just want the CLOWN act to just STOP. He was, NO STILL IS such a liar, his first wife, and Baby’s Momma has never spoke to her own daughter for 25 years… and still counting. I use to think who doesn’t speak to their beautiful daughter that I have considered my own! But after all he has put me through, I NOW get why the Original HOST of my soon to be canceled sitcom, left the set and quit her job as his wife and has never reappeared to be in her own biological daughters life.
    And now I am peeling away the layers of his onion through experiences he throws our way, finding out that during our entire relationship all along I have not really been at the circus watching the Clown ACT, but that I have just been dealing with a textbook NARC. I grew up watching ‘In Living Color‘ and really, Homey Don’t Play That!
    Thank-you Kristen for the insight. I need to stop trying to help him and go get my own Therapy. He has done this before to the women in his life and he is going to continue to do it after I am gone.

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