The Pinocchio Complex: Addicted to Exaggeration


There are people so addicted to exaggeration, that they cannot tell the truth without lying.

Confidence, experience and achievement are all sexy, there’s no doubt about it. Narcissists tend to display an immeasurable amount of confidence without the corresponding accomplishments to back up their attitude. This is one of the most important measuring sticks when you’re trying to evaluate whether or not you’re in the presence of a Narcissist.

Many Narcissists make up stories, identities and whole careers. They tell lies, live double lives and exaggerate the hell out of their achievements to create the illusion of who they want you to believe they are (and who they themselves wish they were). Like most people, they want to look good. However, most people have an innate sense of fairness, credibility and deservedness, Narcissists tend not to be encumbered by these feelings. You generally don’t hear them being self-deprecating (unless it’s to gain sympathy), nor do they paint themselves in an unflattering light. Their problems, failures and mistakes are all someone else’s fault.

When others contradict them, point out the reality of a situation or speak of them in unflattering tones, Narcissists will get incredibly defensive. Some fly into rages, others deflect and then here are those who will go on the offensive and attack those who they fear can see through their lies.

By behaving in an outrageous and unpredictable manner when contradicted, there is a level of conditioning going on. They are training others not to challenge them, not to point out their flaws, lies or exaggerations, because if they do, it’ll get very unpleasant for them. They need the attention and the admiration that goes with claiming to have extreme talent, intelligence, athletic prowess, beauty. Heaven help anyone who gets in the way of that.

A friend recently shared a story with me, of accompanying a colleague to a conference that she attended every year. The colleague knew all the people there and unbeknownst to my friend, her colleague had created a web of lies about herself. She described making small talk with someone she had just met and discovering that her colleague had told everyone that she owned her parents house and because they were elderly, she allowed them to live with her. Not only did she create the illusion that she was financially successful, she got to look altruistic to boot. The reality was that she lived in her parents home and that at 38, they felt she should be able to support herself and very much wanted her to move out. No doubt she was deeply ashamed of this, hence the need for the spin. What is perhaps most bemusing is the colleagues need to bitch about and attack other people who rent and/or own their own homes. Why do this when you can’t even afford to rent or buy yourself? Envy and the need to destroy that which the other has is why. Someone with these traits can’t quite tolerate feeling ‘less than’ so they adopt a superior stance in the hope that it will fool others. It rarely does.

In a similar vein, a former client of mine kept telling me the same story about herself over and over again and with each telling, she would add another heroic feat or talent. She had made herself into a world class fabricator and story teller and wanted to hold her perceived audience in rapt attention. The only problem with the story was that it wasn’t true. I know this because parts of the truth would be disclosed sporadically, based around the reasons that caused her to seek clinical help in the first place. The fact that I knew she was spouting rubbish appeared to make no difference to her, as in those moments, the lies became the truth.

The story goes that her mother had become a doctor at the age of 40. She was highly intelligent and went on to become a successful Oncologist. Her daughter gained considerable supply through her achievements. Having a high achieving parent meant that she could rest on her laurels without having to lift a finger. Through the magic of genetics, she believed he was owed the same reverence as her doctor mother. The reality was that she was a high school drop out, which was the source of much of her rage. During our work, we discussed her enrolling onto a course that would help her to get onto a university degree. She signed up, attended 4 classes, but by the time the first assignment was due, she had decided that the course was stupid and a waste of her considerable intelligence. She then went onto claim that she had two medical Masters degrees and a plethora of other qualifications and talents during our work together, even though they were in direct contradiction (not to mention obvious lies) to what I knew to be the truth. She was so wedded to the version of reality that she had created, that any confrontation of this resulted in hysterical outburst and venting rages. Our work ended following my enquiry as to the purpose of the invented stories and my therapeutic refusal to collude with the lies.

If you Google something like, ‘faking degrees and achievements,’ you will get pages and pages of stories of individuals who want the title and the prestige, without doing the necessary work or obtaining the necessary credentials. Narcissists can’t be bothered with doing the work or doing things properly. This is why they usually surround themselves with partners who are caretakers, fixers and helpers or though who don’t question them if something doesn’t add up.

The overall sense of entitlement means that they truly believe that they are deserving of any and all achievements, whether feigned or not. The question is do they know that they have lied, exaggerated their achievements and didn’t actually do the work?….The answer is yes, but mostly no. Narcissists have a very fragile ego. Underneath the facade and the bravado is an incredibly insecure individual. From a cognitive perspective, one has to conclude that if a person is of sound mind and has memory, then surely they know when they are lying and making things up? Dr.’s Dunning and Kruger have a different perspective.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where people of a lesser ability suffer from illusory superiority, whereby they mistake their cognitive ability to be greater than it actually is. Metacognition is our ability to have insight, to be aware of our awareness and to think about thinking. When a person lacks insight, their ability to judge their own ineptitude is impaired. If metacognition is lacking or even missing, individuals of lesser ability cannot objectively evaluate the actual competence or incompetence. Dunning and Kruger state that the cognitive bias of illusory superiority is the result of an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.

Psychologist Stephen Johnson writes that the narcissist is someone who has “buried his true self-expression in response to early injuries and replaced it with a highly developed, compensatory false self.” This alternate persona to the real self comes across as “above others,” self-absorbed and highly conceited. In our highly individualistic and externally driven society, mild to severe forms of narcissism are not only pervasive but often encouraged. Narcissism is often interpreted in our culture as a person who’s in love with themselves. It is more accurate to characterise these traits as being more about someone who’s in love with an idealised, self constructed self-image. They project this out to the world in order to avoid feeling (and being seen as) their real, disenfranchised and wounded self. Deep down, their internal experience is to feel like the “ugly duckling,” even if they painfully don’t want to admit it. They don’t believe their real selves are worthy, so scheming and manipulation are resorted to so as to appear to be all that they wish to be.

Unless you’re Mohammad Ali, you should not be running around spouting off that you are the greatest and the prettiest. Ali could do that, because he actually was the greatest. Most Narcissists will never achieve actual greatness because they believe that the requirements are for other, lesser people. Some do experience successes, and the reasons behind their success are more than likely all self-serving. When a Narcissist does have money, or has achieved some level of success, believe me you’ll know it. Humility they name is not Narcissist.

An inflated view of their own self-importance is a trait shared by most Narcissists. If you are involved with someone who behaves in an arrogant, haughty manner and who lies or misrepresents their achievements, this is not something that you should ever just brush over. It’s a clear indication that this person lacks insight and does not have a firm grasp on reality. Once you have evidence of this, this is your cue to leave.

The term “flying monkeys,” was coined to refer to the yes-men and women with whom Narcissists surround themselves. These are people that, among other things, turn a blind eye to the truth and reality and willingly participate in and perpetuate the false world that a Narcissist lives in. Don’t be one of them. If you can’t call a spade a spade without an argument or punishment of some kind, you are not in a relationship, you’re in a dictatorship.

Go Well.

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