Why Does Low Self-Esteem Make Us Lie—and How Can We Start Telling the Truth?

Why Does Low Self-Esteem Make Us Lie—and How Can We Start Telling the Truth?

I once asked a friend whether she knew anything about Russian literature.

"No," she intoned, shaking her head with a studiedly blank look in her eyes. "Not a thing."

Later I learned that she'd written her Master's thesis on Anna Karenina. She had lied in order to avoid the fate—dire, she thought—of looking like a know-it-all.

One day I heard a boy ask his father why stars shine. The father launched into a narrative about sound waves and electricity. He knew it wasn't true, but he lied in order to avoid the fate—dire, he thought—of sounding ignorant.

The types of lies that we who struggle with self-loathing tell are strange, squiggly lies. But they're lies nonetheless. And a lot of us who struggle with self-loathing tell a lot of lies.

Sure, it's natural to link lying with excessively high self-esteem. Somewhere along the way, we've all encountered the blusteringly bloviating braggart and the say-anything-to-get-what-s/he-wants trickster. What, in fact, is the "con" in "con artist" short for? It’s confidence, as in self-confidence.

Lying requires certain bravado. Devising the falsehood in the first place, planning its execution, then lying in wait for pre-selected or random victims, then expressing the lie in calculatedly credible tones—each step in this wicked process mandates its own sinister brand of ingenuity, creativity, patience, insolence, bravery and artistry, all of which involve a pact, promise or dare that one makes with oneself.

But lying can spring from self-loathing, too. Self-loathing makes us lie in order to appear smarter, kinder, and otherwise better than the horrible human beings we think we are. Self-loathing makes us lie in order to trick people into liking us—because we believe that, without being tricked, they won't.

Lying when (and because) you worship yourself and lying when (and because) you despise yourself are alike in many ways. But they differ vastly when it comes to what matters most: motive.

Why do liars lie? To extract "goods," material and otherwise, from others. Self-worshiping liars angle for unearned money. Unmerited praise. Evasion of responsibilities. By contrast, self-loathing liars angle for acceptance. Absolution for imaginary flaws. Forgiveness for imaginary crimes.

Self-worshiping liars lie to control others. Self-loathing liars lie in order to let—or make—others control them. One is an act of treachery. The other is an act of desperation. Both are acts of manipulation, and neither feeds the soul.

My mother used to tell me: "A liar is worse than a thief." In a spiritual sense, she was correct. A thief takes your stuff. A liar screws with the heads and hearts of those to whom he or she lies—because truth and lying are matters of trust. Lie to someone repeatedly and you have abused that person; you have taught that person to be lied to. You have taught that person to think: I am the one who is lied to, thus I must be stupid, naive and unworthy of the truth.

Those who are lied to feel angry at whomever lied to them, but too often turn their anger onto themselves—because liars of both the self-worshiping and self-loathing kinds, when confronted, will almost always deny that they have lied.

Every lie we tell is a missed opportunity to learn. It's a missed opportunity for courage—not the creepy courage of fomenting deception, but the stronger, brighter courage of telling the truth.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.