The old joke about how to tell if a politician is lying — their lips are moving — can also apply to narcissists. They use lying as a manipulation tool, and they employ it frequently. Their goal is to confuse and misdirect you. It’s natural that you might wonder how you can tell if they are telling the truth or lying. There are, in fact, times when a narcissist is sincere, so how can you tell?
Narcissists frequently tell you the truth when they need something from you or when they are in the midst of an emotional outburst. It’s easy to dismiss it as just something they said in the heat of the moment, but if you listen carefully, you will hear the truth they’re trying to tell you.
Read on to learn more about why narcissists lie and when they are likely to tell the truth. It’s critical information to have if you’re trying to distinguish between the truth and just more manipulative lies.
Why Do Narcissists Lie?
Like most people, narcissists often do things without really thinking about why they are doing them. But regardless of what is motivating the narcissist, the one thing that remains constant for them is that they are focused on themselves.
They are so concerned with how they can get what they need — that vital narcissistic supply of adoration — that they often act in harmful or destructive ways without even realizing it. Because they lack empathy, they have little understanding of how their actions affect other people.
They are also not introspective, so they don’t examine their own reasons for doing the things they do. Moreover, they often believe the lies they tell. Narcissists engage in a behavior called splitting where they cannot see themselves or other people as multi-dimensional. Instead, a person is either all good or all bad.
If they feel as though they have done something ‘bad’ like lie, they can’t accept that because it would mean they are all bad which makes them feel worthless and broken. Thus, they often create elaborate and grandiose ideas to keep that feeling away. Accepting the truth that they lied is not something they can do; instead, they choose to believe their own lies.
They also can’t let others think they are wrong or bad, so they will work hard to conceal any actions that might be interpreted that way. They simply can’t risk losing their narcissistic supply as that would result in a devastating mental decompensation.
That’s why they lie without any shame about what they are doing. They see it as a necessary action for their very survival. But they do actually tell you the truth in indirect ways, so you have to look and listen carefully to what they do say.
How Do You Know When a Narcissist is Being Honest?
There are several ways you can be relatively sure that you’re getting the truth from a narcissist, but these are not always straightforward. Many times, you have to read between the lines. Let’s explore each one and look at why that tells you they’re being honest.
One way that you can be relatively certain you’re getting the truth from a narcissist is when they tell you something in an angry confession. If a narcissist is angry, they generally want to wound you, and they often do that by telling you the truth.
For example, they might threaten to do something they are actually already doing in the attempt to justify what they’ve been up to and to cast the blame for their actions onto you. They might say, for example, “Well, I wasn’t cheating, but I am going to start now!”
This kind of statement should be a huge red flag because it’s very likely you just got the truth — they are cheating. They might also just tell you straight out what they’ve been doing because they want to hurt you. After things have calmed down, they will likely say that what they said wasn’t true, that they were just trying to hurt you.
Don’t fall for it. If a narcissist blurts out something they’ve been doing when they’re really upset, odds are they are telling you the truth.
Opposite is True
Narcissists often also thrive in ‘opposite land.’ They will often tell you the exact opposite of what they are really doing. This can be a tricky one to detect, but there are some telltale signs that indicate this is what they’re doing.
The first clue is that they will give you the information in a very calm way. They don’t want to arouse your suspicion that they are lying so they avoid exaggerated emotions. You’ll also notice that they bring up the topic at an odd time or place.
For example, you might be having a disagreement about something else, but suddenly and without provocation, the narcissist says something like, “I could cheat on you if I wanted, but I’m not doing that.” If their statement feels odd relative to what you’re actually talking about, that can indicate they are speaking in opposites.
Another hint is if their statement is something that is so obvious it doesn’t really need to be said. Take the previous example, the truth is that anyone could cheat on their partner if they really want to, so why did the narcissist suddenly feel a need to say that? It’s understood in most relationships that either partner could cheat, but you’ve agreed that neither will do that.
In the narcissist’s mind, such a statement should reassure you and make them look as though they can be trusted. They’re trying to direct your attention elsewhere by making an obvious and unnecessary statement. The truth is the opposite of what they’re saying.
Another tactic the narcissist will use to misdirect blame for something they are doing onto you is projection. This is a common psychological defense mechanism for anyone who simply can’t deal with their own thoughts, actions, or feelings.
Narcissists can’t accept criticism for blame, and they can’t deal with feeling ashamed of themselves. So, they accuse you of doing the very thing they have been doing. That allows them to project the blame for those actions away from themselves to support their own self-esteem. As narcissism expert, author, and lecturer Elinor Greenberg says, “A lot of what Narcissists say is edited to portray them as right and others as wrong. Does this count as lying on purpose or is it simply an unconscious defense to support their shaky self-esteem?”
This type of deflection usually takes the form of an accusation without any good reason. For example, if the narcissist is accusing you of cheating even though there is no evidence or reason for them to make that accusation, that’s an indicator they are projecting their own actions onto you. They are telling you the truth, just in a very indirect way.
They might also project onto other people. For example, if the narcissist starts talking about people from their past who did something to them like cheating on them or lying to them, that’s a red flag that they’re projecting their own bad behavior onto those past friends or loved ones.
It’s quite likely that their loved ones never did what they are accusing them of doing, but it’s likely the opposite — the narcissist did that to them. They will also project blame if they get caught doing something. They might say the other person manipulated them into cheating when they are likely the one who did the manipulating.
Beware the Half-Truth
Another way you can tell if a narcissist is telling the truth is to look for those partial truths. Narcissists can easily justify lying if what they are saying is half true. One thing that narcissists think is that by telling a partial truth, it makes them more credible.
They think that if they are admitting to something bad they did, then you’ll think, “Well if he’s admitting to that, he’s probably telling the truth about the rest of it.” The problem you face is distinguishing between the partial truth and the whole truth.
Additionally, a partial lie is still a lie, so you have to rely on what makes sense in your situation. If it seems confusing, you’re probably being told at least a partial lie. In this case, you’re going to have to rely more on your gut than anything else.
Just like with the statements the narcissist makes out of the blue, if they are asking some kind of strange question, you might wonder if they are indirectly revealing a truth about themselves. For example, if they are suddenly very curious about your activity on a certain app on your phone, perhaps it’s because they are doing something sketchy on that same app on their phone.
When a narcissist does something wrong and they are successful at hiding it from you, they often convince themselves that you’re doing the same thing. It justifies their actions in their mind, but it also often backfires because they realize that you might be doing just that and they want to know!
So, if they suddenly start asking about something out of the blue, like hidden apps on your phone or your activity on social media, then it’s likely they’re doing something on those same sites or apps that they don’t want you to know about.
The Bottom Line – Can You Get the Truth from a Narcissist?
The answer to this question is that you really can’t make them tell you the truth, but if you listen carefully, you may discover the truth in the end. It’s important to pay attention to the actions of the narcissist, because no matter what they say, their actions often reveal the truth.
The problem with this is that you will often have to face a very ugly, hard truth. When you start looking at what truly motivates the narcissist in your life, you will see what truly motivates them, and what motivates them generally has little to do with concern for anyone else, including you.
It’s also patently unfair to you that you should have to decipher a hidden or partial truth. The people who love you are supposed to be honest with you, but that’s just not in the narcissist’s toolbox. Moreover, they can be very convincing when they use the full force of their charm to get you to believe them.
The bottom line is that you have to learn to trust your own instincts. If you think you’re not getting the whole truth, then dig deeper and pay special attention to those indirect cues that tell you what the truth really is.
Lying is a common manipulation tactic that narcissists use all the time. They are all about control, and one way to do that is to lie to get people to do what they want or feel they need. The narcissist’s lack of empathy and the ability to be introspective means they have little concern for their actions and will never take responsibility.
Even if they do acknowledge they lied, they will almost certainly blame you or someone else for creating the situation in which they felt they had to lie. You can’t win with them, so don’t delude yourself into thinking you can. You can, however, set firm boundaries and enforce them when you catch the narcissist in a violation like a lie.
Now that you have a better understanding of how you can tell what is the truth that a narcissist might or might not be trying to tell you, you’ll definitely want to read this article about what to expect when you confront a narcissist. It will help you prepare for that inevitable confrontation when you do catch them in a lie.
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