Dear Dr. Andrea,
I’m 27, and generally like myself. I’ve been in therapy in the past for some anxiety issues, mostly better managed now, and I think I strike a good balance of working on myself and accepting myself for who I am. There’s one thing I don’t feel good about, though. And it’s not ever been something that I’ve been able to talk about with others, including my therapist, although the problem wasn’t as bad then.
It’s that I lie sometimes, or more than sometimes, not about anything particularly important. In fact, almost always it’s about trivial, meaningless stuff. Or I’ll exaggerate stories quite a bit. I guess it’s pretty self-serving, to make me look more interesting, or just to entertain people in the moment.
As I do it, I think about how there’s no reason for me to be doing it. I think what’s worse is that certain friends have started to assume that I’m full of it. I can kind of tell by how they’ll be dismissive of certain things I say. Last night, I said that I knew someone who worked at a certain place, and that they had told me things were crazy there with people quitting. But none of it was true. Why do I do this? And why does stopping seem so hard?
— Wish I Could Stop
As I see it, there are two parts here for you to work on, if you are really motivated to do so. And you seem to be! (After all, the fact that you don’t like that you do this is important.) The first big part is to do some real work on understanding where this comes from. Embellishing stories, of course, is a human instinct as old as time, but it’s safe to say that you recognize yourself as an outlier, and that it’s hurting you.
You’ve been in therapy for anxiety in the past; my guess is that anxiety drives this as well, but a deeper anxiety about how you come across to others, or even who you are as a person. Do you believe that you’re not worthy enough in your most genuine form? Do you fear being an outsider so much that you always have to have an anecdote to contribute to someone else’s topic? Maybe you worry about being viewed as unintelligent, or not in the know, if something comes up you can’t speak to. Or perhaps you have social or performance anxiety, and need to boost your persona into an outsize version of yourself, because otherwise you worry you can’t command an “audience.” Even more reasons could exist: lying to keep people at arm’s length, to keep people away from the “real” you and its most vulnerable parts. Finally, might it also be the thrill of getting away with it? A (dysfunctional) way of dealing with boredom or a deeper emptiness?
Knowing what’s driving this — truly admitting it, and facing it — will help you make headway on it. It will allow you to work to fill those holes in other ways, like working to build up your self-efficacy by developing a deeper sense of meaning about who you are in the world. Knowing the roots will also help you identify the situations when you are going to be most prone to this behavior, so that you can gird up your defenses (like the newly sober person creating strategies for dealing with the open bar at a wedding.)
But the other big part of this is less cognitive, and more behavioral. Like any conditioned habit, the more you do it, the more likely you are to continue it — and the more you stop it, the easier it is to stop it in the future. So get practical about breaking the cycle. Make small, specific goals to choose a more functional behavior and plan paths in advance to do so. Hold yourself accountable, observe yourself, learn from your slip-ups and reward yourself along the way. Maybe you keep a true story in mind, ready to share before your next outing, and commit to pausing for five seconds before you say anything at all. Use what you learn about your triggers (“I feel anxious,” “I’m not interesting enough to this crowd,” “This is boring,” “No one’s paying attention to me”) to map out specific ways to counteract them. Start small, with a goal of one night embellishment-free. And, to revisit the sobriety analogy (which fits in a variety of ways), let yourself be real and lean in to the uncomfortable feelings. Afterward, reward yourself — and try to notice the ways that the evening was more than all right on its own, without artificial enhancement.