Most habitual liars aren’t trying to convince *you* of anything

I’ve recently been watching someone use Reddit, the world’s largest and deepest online swamp of anonymous jibber-jabber, as a vehicle to propagate fantasy life but two (in one of them, she is supernaturally well adjusted, hands out advice no legitimate adviser would, and is a flagrant know-it-all; in the other, she’s a recently terminated drunken construction worker who only a few months ago was a luxury condo developer in the Boulder area).

Living under the illusion of being more accomplished, more loved and admired, more generous, more intelligent, more knowledgeable, and more goal-oriented than one actually is might be an amazing way to live if it were possible to maintain it. I suspect that many of us often rewind the tapes of our lives to some critical point, substitute a great outcome for the poor one that actually happened, and play the tape forward to the present just to imagine how things might be were it not for that one possibly awful choice or event. But most people aren’t loopy enough to transform “might-have-beens” or pipe dreams into online resumes or other fictitious accomplishments, because when people try to interface with the world as someone they’re not, the world tends to offer resistance.

Imagine having taken your occasional reveries a few psychological steps further than you’ve ever actually been tempted to do, and that your everyday existence was about propagating a completely revisionist version of your own life. And I don’t mean lying about a few running personal bests or frat-boy hijinks. I mean convincing yourself that even today, as you sit at home frantically feeding massive cakes of horseshit into the Internet sewage stream, you have yourself 95 percent convinced that you will have a PhD soon even though you’re not in school, that you’ll be buying your own home within a couple of years despite having literally no savings and no job, and that you routinely make trips across the country to visit the city you grew up on but haven’t seen in over eight years. The other 5 percent, the reservations you harbor about this life, stem from not being enough of a psychiatric mess to render you immune to other people’s responses to your bizarre claims;  you may be schizotypal, but you’re not flat-out schizophrenic. Those pointed reactions to your nonsense (on Twitter, for example) cause you cognitive dissonance and, in fact, a great deal of anger.

I have talked to numerous people at some length who were absolutely, clinically delusional; in one instance, this was a literal assignment. But straddling the line between outright schizophrenics and everyday wishful-thinkers and liars are people who are dangerously close to swallowing wholesale the wildly exaggerated skills and accomplishments they attach to themselves on Internet message boards (and as a corollary, fully believing the equally indefensible things they claim about their adversaries and critics) but realize at some aggravating level that they are pushing sheer fictions.

This, I think, is why people who are challenged on obvious lies often double down on these lies and grow extremely agitated in the process. It is not, in most cases, because they are actually trying to convince their audience of anything; in most cases, no one in the mix even knows anyone else’s name. It is because calling BS on someone whose frail mental health requires ferocious self-delusion is as hostile to such a person as actually stealing something from him or her.

Again, if you could somehow believe without interruption that you really do spend your days doing all sorts of stuff that is far beyond your reach save for continual Googling and the real stories of other people, it would probably be quite a satisfying life. (I’m sure this is why genuinely religious people are probably happier than others, because who wouldn’t be buoyed by the thought of spending eternity in some incredibly unlikely celestial paradise?) The problem, obviously, is that it is almost impossible to consciously shield oneself from reality to the extent required to maintain egregiously counterfactual ideas. People who think like this can’t usually support themselves, and their caregivers, ideally, help them to live at least as much in the real world as on some ersatz plane of giddiness. But a noisome combination of targeted Internet use and a negligent or uncaring partner-caregiver can allow this kind of weirdness to go on for a long time — years, in fact.

The real question is how exactly, it all ends. Because nothing like this goes on forever when it’s far from benign and the delusions feature a lot of unfounded hostility toward others. Those others have their limits.