The Self-Serving Lie

truth-lies-buttons-show-true-or-liar-100211556 Many years ago when I was just starting out as a therapist, I briefly worked for a large group practice. At the end of my tenure, the managing partner in this group, a respected psychoanalyst, refused to pay what he owed me. When I pointed out to him that he was contractually bound to pay me – according to his own employment contract – he replied, “If we had known that contract wouldn’t work out to our advantage, we never would have signed it.” He actually seemed to believe that this was sufficient reason to stiff me. I finally had to threaten a lawsuit before he coughed up.

This psychoanalyst was not a bad man. He was married with children, he was good to his patients, served on the board of his institute and taught classes for free. But he had a moral blind spot. He told himself that it was okay for him to withhold payment because he had profited less than expected from our relationship. He didn’t see anything wrong with that, and even seemed to feel sorry for himself that he hadn’t benefitted as much from my employment as he had hoped.

Over this past summer, I was reminded of this unpleasant experience during a contract dispute with our building contractor here in Colorado. Back in November, we began what was expected to be a two-month remodel of our kitchen that would make it about 30% larger, anticipating a time when Grand Lake will become home base. Peggy, our contractor, has been a friend over the last five years. She has done other work on our house, especially two years ago when we converted a space for me to use as my office. Throughout our relations, she has been entirely reliable.

Concerning the payment schedule, the new contract she provided read as follows: “Payment schedule: 1/3 payment at signing of contract, 1/3 progress payment, and 1/3 payment at completion.” The work encompassed by the agreement involved moving the exterior stairs to a new location and final site cleanup. I won’t go into all the details and delays, but early in May when the project still hadn’t been completed, Peggy called and asked for her final payment. We were in North Carolina and hadn’t yet seen the project but we knew for certain that the stairs had not been relocated. Peggy insisted that she needed her final payment and out of friendship, we gave her one-half even though she wasn’t entitled to anything according to her own contract.

When we arrived in Grand Lake almost a month later, the stairs had not been relocated. The new granite in the kitchen was defective and stained dramatically with the smallest amount of water. Trim on the new cabinets was defective. The cable wire for the kitchen television had not been re-installed in the new wall. One of the heating vents had been completely disconnected and forgotten. There was construction debris under our house. It was a mess.

When we brought the granite problem to her attention, Peggy blamed it on our “rusty” water and basically left it for us to deal with the vendor. When we pointed out the problem with the cabinet trim, she told us it was a manufacturer’s defect (and therefore not her problem). When I pointed out to her that the cable wire had not been re-installed, she said, “Oh, we didn’t do that because the cable wasn’t long enough. Just call the cable company and they’ll come out.” They did come out and there was a charge for the reinstallation. Oh, and the existing cable was plenty long. She had simply forgotten all about it and invented this convenient lie to save herself the expense of calling her electrician back out.

One day, Peggy informed us that the cabinet provider was going to put a lien on our house because “we” hadn’t paid them. It is her responsibility to pay her own sub-contractors, but she told us we’d better pay if we didn’t want a lien. “I’m just looking out for your best interests.” We swallowed hard and paid. Two months went by and the stairs still hadn’t been moved. She asked for the rest of her money and we pointed out that the job still wasn’t finished.

Finally, two men came to pour a cement pad for the new landing so the stairs could be moved. Peggy told us that she hadn’t included the cost of the concrete in her bid because the stairs were under snow during most of the construction so she didn’t want to charge us for something we wouldn’t be getting. She insisted she had verbally told us about the concrete though neither one of us remembered such a conversation. And it made absolutely no sense since she DID include a charge for moving the stairs in her bid, though it would have been impossible to move them without that concrete pad. Another self-serving lie meant to save her money. The concrete workers demanded $500 upon completion ($100 more than Peggy had told us it would cost) and we paid.

Another few weeks passed and a carpenter did some intermittent and shoddy work. The staircase looks terrible, and it was obvious all she cared about was saving money. Then she demanded her final payment, though the site was strewn with debris, the granite issue still hadn’t been resolved, she had completely ignored our complaints about the cabinets, and there was trash under our house. Peggy told me that all the trash under the house had been there before the remodel. She made no reply when I pointed out that there were hardwood floor remnants from the new floor she had installed. Another self-serving lie exposed.

Peggy began sending threats to file a lien on our house if we didn’t pay. She took umbrage at my statements that she had lied and hadn’t completed the work under her contract, indignant that I question her “integrity.” Apparently, she feels like a victim, as if we have somehow mistreated her, when the job still isn’t completed.

Like my former employer, Peggy is not a bad person, but she lies when she doesn’t want to face an inconvenient (or costly) fact. I’m sure she has actually come to believe her own lies, and has worked up a sense of indignation at how badly we’ve treated her. No doubt she has told a self-serving story to our neighbor and mutual friend, who now looks the other way when our paths cross.

But the truth is: Peggy lied about the cable, lied about the concrete, lied about “looking out for our best interests” when she had failed to pay her own sub-contractor, lied when she insisted the cabinets were the fault of the manufacturer, etc. The self-serving lie is all too common, and people who tell lies in this way often believe them. If you think about defense mechanisms as lies we tell ourselves to avoid painful truths, this is but another kind of defense. Peggy doesn’t want to admit she treated us badly and did a lousy job so she takes indignant refuge in her “integrity,” making us into the bad guys. She also shirks responsibility by blaming our “rusty” water and the cabinet manufacturer (See Why Do I Do That? Chapter 8 – Defenses Against Shame). She wants to avoid absorbing cost overruns, so she lies to save herself the financial pain.

Nothing unusual here. This kind of self-serving lie is all too common, even with basically good people who just happen to think a little more highly of themselves than they deserve.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Does ones head in, right. Bad enough, when it’s a friend of five yrs doing you over- having a husband of 30 yrs, and children’s welfare is involved, indulging in the same delusional thinking, that takes a while to let go of. Even when, as you did, one points out the bleeding obvious truth.

  2. I imagined Peggy underneath that concrete slab as I read this. She’s a nightmare.

    Peggy (I think you’d agree) does not believe she’s lying, so is that really lying?
    To me ‘lying’ is a conscious act.

    I think this is an extreme example of what takes place between humans everyday, meaning we all have our own perspective and are in the dark to varying degrees regarding how the people we interact with experience the relationship.

    You were kind and generous to her. I think this story makes the cutthroat manner in which some people do business make sense. As soon as you use your heart, you’re screwed.

    1. It’s interesting — is it a lie if it’s not conscious. I’d say yes. I think of all defense mechanisms as unconscious lies.

      But it is important to me that Peggy is not deliberately trying to cheat us, at least not on a fully conscious level. That’s why I don’t think of her as a bad person.

  3. Again, a disappointment. What does all this commentary have to do with what us, your subscribers, expect? You lied. No, you are not a bad person, like Peggy or your former employer. But you have led us to believe that there would be a lesson to be learned here, a lesson related to our psychological wellbeing. Oh, by the way, the granite wasn’t sealed.

    1. I’m sorry, but this is absurd. I write this blog free of charge for my pleasure and hopefully for the enjoyment of my readers. I never promised that you would learn a lesson related to your psychological well-being.

      1. Peggy being a “Contractor”, you’d think she would be trying to please her clients, friends or not, for the sake of good business. Word of mouth goes a long way..especially now that there is Yelp and Angie’s List!! I personally, would have called her out on her faults like not notifying you of supposed rusty water or why itemized list of charges did not have the concrete charge. You have to live there, not her, so she should have had to stand by what was originally quoted. Period. A good friend would never rip off another with shoddy work ethics and demand more money still! I would list her on Yelp so nobody else gets ripped off. Just speakin my mind..,

        1. Also, I do think her thoughts were soley on lying for profit. Believing what she said had nothing to do with it. She was lying because she could, knowing you would pay her based on the friendship. She believed you would pay.

  4. Ugly stuff. I dont think they care about “truth” so its not about believing their own lies, it’s about insisting on what they feel is convenient, AKA “rightful” to them. They want to win, they are honest about that. That’s also where their honesty ends.

    Peggy might be a “good person” in the sense that she doesnt mean bad to people in general – but she’s showing here that she means bad to people whose she engages in business relationships with, and this likely how she handles personal relationships too (using friendship as weapon, pressuring you through shared connections, deflecting, blaming her faults on you, etc, does she have other ways of dealing with conflict? unlikely?) .

    In my experience she needs to lose and hit bottom so she can question her own antics and change ways for the better.

    1. It’s hard to believe that these character traits and ways of engaging in relationships don’t show up in her personal life, but honestly, they never did before this contract. Then again, we don’t know her terribly well. My guess is she underbid the project and came under financial pressure, which brought some less attractive sides of her personality to light. What bothers me the most is that she didn’t just come forward and say, “Look, it’s costing more than I expected and I’m broke. Can you help me out?” We would have done it in a heartbeat. It’s being manipulated and blamed that I object to.

      1. Pride and the desire for self-preservation… protecting yourself at all costs. Sometimes the shame is too painful to admit defeat. They do say you should never do business with friends don’t they. Maybe this is why!

        I also wonder if there is such a thing as a ‘basically good person’… I wonder if we all have it in us to behave certain ways under certain circumstances? Perhaps this black and white thinking can let us down. This ‘good’ person is behaving outwith the set of behaviours I expected therefore I feel frustrated and caught off-guard but I will let it go because she is a good person, maybe it is a one-off… oh it happened again, why did she let me down again? I’ll let it go because she is a good person etc. (meanwhile feeling growing resentment as we feel more and more taken advantage of). If you had perceived her to be an unreliable or selfish person from the start, or a bad business woman then maybe you wouldn’t feel so let down, you’d think something like, ‘I kind of expected her to let me down… oh well, lesson learned’ – do we set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting anything from anyone? Maybe if we remain neutral – e.g. this person could behave in a positive or negative way because they have their own personal triggers that are nothing to do with me – we would be more willing to respond in an honest and assertive way..? Maybe?

        I’m trying to think about what my therapist would say if I shared this type of story. After empathising and validating my feelings of anger, frustration and disappointment I think he would say two things. The first would be to guide me towards understanding that everyone and anyone has the ability to let us down because of their own innate selfish needs and desires. The second I think would be that he would ask if I used direct and assertive communication skills when working with her. Did I tell her I was disappointed? Did I disagree verbally or in writing with the proposals that I knew were incorrect? Did I regain power over my side of the relationship? If not then what can I learn about it all… could I have communicated in a stronger, more effective and more assertive way? Other people can’t read minds so we need to be clear with them if we need them to know how we feel. The problem with this is that it is painfully uncomfortable and awkward and nobody wants to be responsible for potentially damaging the friendship beyond repair but it looks like in this instance it may be difficult to go forward with the friendship the way things are.

        I realise you don’t need any advice at all and you have way more experience than me in these things but I just thought I’d make use of the comment function and share my thoughts.

        1. When I post a story like this, I am opening myself to advice, and I thank you for yours. While I agree with much of what you say, I don’t know how to live a life in which I expect nothing from people, that I assume they can always let me down. I had developed feelings of trust over time that naturally (to my point of view) led me to believe she would perform in an ethical way going forward.

          We were pretty direct and clear in our communications — I have no regrets there. I think the best bit of advice you and others have given is to never do business with friends or family. Seems incredibly and painfully true.

  5. My parent’s stressed honesty when I was growing up. I wish they had also educated me about “the self-serving lie.” Thanks for saying it how it is! I am guilty of self-serving exaggeration at times – I am more aware of it now, but an out and out lie always boggles my mind. As you have pointed out — the liar doesn’t see it as a lie, he/she sees it as justifiable because they should get what they want just because they are who they are. I have a small business and word of mouth is critical – both in person and online. I want my customers to get what they want and leave more than happy. In these days of social media, you can post your dissatisfaction for all to see, although all are not on board yet. With legal efforts, facts always out them, but it is costly. Thanks for bringing to light an ugly subject we all have experience with at one time or another.

  6. I am a self-employed landscaper. I am also a property manager for a couple of my landscape customers. So, I do see contracts for work, write contracts for work I intend to perform for people and pray to God that I have factored in every expected detail and foresee all expenses and problems that may come up. Sometimes it’s like gazing into a crystal ball.
    I have also, in my travels, heard many stories similar to yours and it is disturbing to me. It is a difficult thing to own up to if you’ve screwed up – however, in my case I have to suck it up and admit if I’ve made a mistake (which of course is rare 🙂 ), or approach the client if there is an overrun in cost that would cost me serious financial hardship. If it is explained clearly and properly then the client is more likely to cover the cost.
    But I have seen people get into trouble, often by undercutting other prices just to get the job and then not having the skill or money to finish the job as it should be completed.
    I agree, that the shame she faces for this major screw up is forcing this poor behaviour. It is unfortunate for both of you that this has happened. She probably was so frustrated and overwhelmed that she couldn’t handle it. But to threaten to put a lien on your house? That is desperation.
    And, yes, your granite needed to be sealed. There should be a business that repairs and seals granite counter tops. (I have to deal with this kind of stuff everyday) Tomorrow I have to phone the company that repaired a glass shower for my client, only to have the transom fall into the shower and smash to pieces before the homeowners arrived. They tried to blame the house keeper, but I wasn’t going to let them get away with that one. What they don’t know yet, because I haven’t had a chance to show them the pictures, is that they are going to have to find someone to repair the damage to the marble that the glass made when it fell. Oh, happy days! And I also have to oversee the completion of a shoreline repair that cost my client $60k – to put boulders along the shoreline for erosion protection. He is charging the client an extra 7k to finish what should have been noted in his contract – but the detail was scarce. He said he “didn’t understand” Not only did the client tell him what he wanted, but I did too. He too got real panicky about being paid. The client, wanting the work completed, agreed to pay the 7k, but not happy about having to – however, the client was concerned that he wouldn’t return to finish the work if they didn’t pay him. And this is a client with a lot of clout and more money than I can even begin to imagine.
    Take heart that eventually your nightmare, like so many other people’s home improvement nightmares, will come to an end and the pain that you are suffering will provide you with new knowledge – cold comfort at this point, I’m sure.

    1. It’s nice to hear from a subcontractor with integrity. As you say, it’s very very difficult to own up to one’s mistakes and oversights.

      One thing I didn’t mention in my post — this job is 30% over budget. Every time Peggy submitted a request for additional payment because of some unexpected glitch, we paid it that very day. The truly sad thing here is that Peggy underbid the job and probably lost money, but we never would have undertaken the work had she bid it accurately.

      1. And there is where desperation comes into play. Wanting or needing the job SO badly that the price is unreasonably low and then everyone loses.
        My husband has bothered me at times because his belief is that, when times are difficult and we have really needed the work, that you take it regardless of what the person’s budget is. However, if it is costing more out of pocket to do the work then what you are charging, regardless if money is changing hands, then you might as well stay home.
        It’s a difficult place to be in.

  7. Dear Dr. Burgo:

    Peggy is NOT a “good person.” She never was your friend.” She’s been a cunning LIAR all along. Please don’t fall into denial. This kind of thing happens to the best of us. You were trying to be civil and it backfired on you with this woman Peggy.

    If she was a true friend, she NEVER would have asked for the final payment in advance. (You should have refused to pay.) A real friend would have come to you and said:

    “Dr. Burgo, I know we had an agreement. Some unfortunate things came up; I am not able to complete the work. I am so very sorry for this and I feel terrible about it. I do not expect you to pay me for the work I have not done. I hope we can settle this and maintain our friendship.”

    You’re too nice, Dr. Burgo. I would like to believe people are good, but they are not. Explaining why would take up too much space on this blog. You can message me directly if you want further explanation of why this happens.

    Good luck on completing your home repairs. Remember to never do business with “friends.” At least not expensive business.

    Peggy is lucky she was dealing with you. In other parts of the country, in a different class strata, Peggy would still be in the hospital recovering for the beating.

    1. Rich, I really don’t believe that Peggy has been a “cunning liar all along.” I think she underbid the job, got in trouble, and tried to get herself out of it by lying, most of all to herself. But I agree with your assessment about what a true friend would do.

      1. Dear Dr. Burgo,

        One thing is certain. She certainly had the capacity to lie all along.

        I have been in situations where a lie would have made things a lot easier on me. I NEVER DID THAT, even though I suffered greatly (and continue to suffer) for my INTEGRITY.

        I look around me and see that I am a rare person indeed. I know how negative I might sound, but you just can’t trust most people.

        Good luck with the home repairs.

      2. Dr Burgo I am a big supporter of yours and love this blog and all you do (even read your book).

        I don’t think she was a ‘cunning liar’ all along but I do think she was let off easily.

        To lie to oneself in a moment of desperation or high emotion is one thing. We panic and it comes out. But to repeatedly hold the mirror up to her face in a respectful way over a longer period of time does allow her to ‘SEE’ what ‘IS’ and so in a way I believe it does become conscious and she ‘chooses’ not to see after that.

        She may very well be a good person but when you are both looking at a duck and she keeps saying it is a polar bear then she has made a choice to do the dishonest thing. She chooses you to suffer for her mistake and will sacrifice your friendship and even get people to turn against you. It is aggressive.

    2. I agree with you thoroughly. People like Peggy manage to justify their fiscal irresponsibility to themselves not last through the conceit of being “good people” supported by those burned clients/customers who are not quite assertive enough to brand them as they really are. Peggy is a crook.

      1. At the end of her emails, Peggy has a signature block that includes the message “Be Kind to Your Mother — Earth and Sea.” Doesn’t that sound like a good person? I think she is self-deceived rather than being a true crook.

  8. Isn`t it strange that Peggy had up to this point always delivered good service, and now all of a sudden she is breaking the contract she had with you? Sounds to me as if she is under intense pressure. Any major changes in her life recently, like a break-up, divorce, illness, looming insolvency?
    She may be a good person as you say, but don`t you feel that the way she is treating you sends the message: “I don`t care how you deal with this mess that I left you.” Ultimately boinling down to “I don`t care about you”? How do you deal with that?
    I am facing a similar situation within my family of origin right now. The convenient lies they are telling themselves convey the message “we don`t care about you” to me, and I find that a very bitter pill to swallow. Every time I have to listen to that, I kind of feel extinguished or annihilated as a person, and that feeling is so painful that I have decided to break off contact for the time being.

    1. I most definitely feel that the message has been, “I don’t care about you or how you deal with this mess that I left you.” I don’t know about any personal stresses in her life, but I think she has felt under extreme financial pressure for underbidding the job.

  9. I always try to get verbal commitments in writing, at least with an e-mail message, even when family does something for me involving substantial money. Saves a lot of grief, lying and ripple effects with neighbours embarrassed because they’ve been caught up in the mess. The Aberdonian in me says “Give ’em an inch and they’ll take an ell.”

    1. I don’t like to think about people that way (“Give ’em an inch and they’ll take an ell (or mile, as we say in the States),” but I think you’re right.

      1. If there’s some piece of written commitment at least it provides a basis for a relatively painless discussion when there is a dispute. I recall lending a thousand pounds to a guy in whose I lived in thirty years ago. He wasn’t going to pay it it back until I put pressure on him and then he did so with bad grace. Ever since then I get things in writing and put things in writing so that “chinese whispers” are avoided. I’d like to feel that we could live in a world where “my word is my bond,” but we don’t (we never did) and I’ve seen friendships and closer relationships disintegrate into hatred over disputes about money and who said what to whom.

      2. I have found that when I “give an inch” to one client, the fact speaks itself around. For whatever reason the business climate in the US has changed to include a fair amount of fiscal Darwinism. I have been warned, rightly as it turns out, to work with some cultures on an all up front basis, as the response for “pulling one off” in dealings abroad is “If they were dumb enough to fall for it, they deserve to be cheated. Serves them right.” I have seen this sense of justification creep into American dealings over the 30 years in which I have owned my business here.

  10. In my business as recruiter for the hospitality industry I encounter people like this fairly often. I find the statement that so and so “is a good person” bizarre. So and so is a creep who manages to pass as a good person when there is no social or legal cost to so and so, especially when so and so has not only a comfort gain but financial benefit from posing as an injured party.

    Lawyers help (as they provide not only financial but business disincentives to so and so- it is relatively easy to do a search for +court +x +”so and so” to see if anyone has found the opportunity cost of holding him or her to the terms of a well written contract less than what the theft of services or money would cost them (as this is indeed “theft of services”, at least in my case). There are also business groups which navigate the legally tricky waters of keeping tabs on those providing services or buying them who do not pay their bills, and once listed there, the so-and-so’s of the world find it harder to get clients or credit. They are expensive to belong to, but the information can at times be received from members one knows. (I was once a member of would not believe who was on their **** list).

    I have a very strong personal feeling that one has a moral duty to hold so an so to task, if it is feasible. As, however, my attorney pointed out regarding a twenty thousand dollar loss to a local swanky hotel group: ” You are right. You have all the proof, you will get the money and penalties up to $100K, but considering that you have me as an attorney and they have twenty of them on staff, you’ll probably be dead before you see any of it.”. So, when you ever can, when you can become the path of greater should. I think>

    In the case of contractors one can usually threaten to contact the state board – which can be enough. The “But she’s an old friend” reasoning here is not valid, as your friends pay your bills. She is a parasite and you deserve what you can get out of the relation. Her threatening to put a lean on your property should be met only with ,”I will ask my lawyer what he thinks,” which is often enough to at least broker a compromise. It is odd how subtle blackmail can server the forces for good now and them.
    By the way, regardless of my degree of stability of instability (who cares) I find these pieces informative and useful, living and dealing in a world populated with the characters you describe.

    1. The situation you describe, where you may be legally in the right but a team of lawyers on the other side can thwart you, is one of the more troubling aspects of modern litigious life. Having worked in law firms for about ten years during college and grad school, I’m familiar with this phenomenon. I’d rather not litigate because of the emotional cost to me. In this case, we have retained the final payment and have engaged other workers to help us finish the job. The granite purveyor has been a totally stand-up guy and continues trying to re-seal our counters. He has promised to replace the stone if he can’t stop it from staining. We have enough money to complete the outstanding work and that will have to satisfy me.

      That being said, I have filed a complaint with the consumer protection agency in Colorado and will go next to the Better Business Bureau. We have already alerted our local real estate agent, a prominent social force in our town. Incidentally, her co-agent commented, after hearing this story, “You’d think that a friend would have tried to do an even better job for you.” Yes, I would.

      1. The BBB is of little help in such situations, buy you may find that the District Attorney’s Office or if it exists the State Board of Consumer Affairs can help.
        As per attorneys, this is not the kind of litigation that guarantees you income for life for slipping an stairs. You have a right to reimbursement or completion of services plus a sum for your time and inconvenience, which good a attorney can help you gain.
        I have three very conservative attorneys on call and they stand in only then when they agree that I am truly owed for my services. They also serve to give me a more business like perspective on when I am a victim as opposed to when I am just angry and perhaps a little vindictive. (not always mutually exclusive).
        As one of them put it, when I mentioned being ambivalent about turning to the courts to get my due: “Consider it this way: When we do what we are intended to, it is our job to keep you all from killing each other over money.”
        So here’s a story: My wonderful client and now friend, Rob, who lost his second restaurant and a huge investment called me to explain that he could not pay the $3500 that he owed me “at that time”. I told him not to worry, I understood. I would just forgive it. He would not have it.
        He called all of his services and providers and asked for time.
        It took him two years to pay us all back. He sold his house among other things.
        Rob is “a nice person”. During the stressful period of closing he was also identified as a marrow donor and took time out to attend to that. Peggy does not in the least qualify.

        1. I respect a person who takes responsibility for his actions and his debts, who wants to repair the damage he may have done to others. I’d describe Rob more as a “stand-up guy,” though he may also be quite nice. Thanks for your perspective on the legal issues.

  11. I think that everyone hates being lied to, even those who, themselves, lie frequently. It only takes one lie to know that you will never be able to trust that person again. I have always loved what I once read was an Abe Lincoln quote: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” It’s true. People who depend upon lying not only have to be good actors in order to be believable, they also have to have excellent memories in order not to trip themselves up. I don’t mean to suggest that I condone it, but I can understand why some people have a need to lie to save face or to get what they want. However, the thing that I have never been able able to understand is why someone would lie to a person who knows that he is lying. I have known people who have done that, & they do it again & again no matter how many times they are caught in their lies. To me, being caught in a lie would be shameful.But these people seem to have no pride. I think that dealing with people who lie is such a large problem for all of us that I would like to read more from you on this subject.

    1. The bald-faced lie is puzzling, isn’t it? Why lie when you know the other person recognizes that you’re lying? It must be to save face, as you say, to avoid the shame of exposure. And I am definitely going to write more on this subject.

  12. I am deeply disturbed by this post. It is IMPORTANT TO YOU TO THINK PEGGY IS NOT TRYING TO CHEAT US. She cheated you, plain and simple. The rest is thoughts and projections and stories. The facts over and over point to an interchange that harms you. Your response more than once indicates the person of excuses for the harm is not a “bad” person, indicating on your behalf your perplexity at w0ndering the motive as to why this damage occurred. So she underbid the contract, made a mistake then used every excuse to harm you and profit from her own poor judgement. That is what happened. You didn’t know her very well, remember. Any interactions previously where you were “supplies”, where she had an opportunity to profit from the association, where mutuality was tested? This is a story of classic narcissistic abuse and you behaving and rationalizing as the perfect target. That’s what’s described. In kindness I would rewrite this post with you as the central figure commenting on the lack of immediate boundary setting and lack of negotiating anew all and any expectations of the contractor after obvious egregious abuse of trust and contractual agreement. We never know what goes on in another’s mind. Waxing philosophical isn’t it the con artists job to gain trust and then steal the rug you’ve bought form them out from under you. Half my patients I’ve ever seen in practice come in scarred with stories of fraud like this on a usually ongoung deeper level. It wasn’t you! It was her. She lied, evaded, stole from you. There is no ethics and morality without the duality of vice. I truly believe my job as a psychotherapist is now to firmly and solidly help those who trust me to look square on for the signs of participating in relationships that cause them inevitable harm, to not make excuses for others excuses and act to remove themselves and settle what they can. Honest courageous post on being a “mark” and the dazed response. That of course is my story. Life isn’t fair, OK. We have to be positive and powerful. Please write us another post on what you learned from this. The contractor is a person with behavior that is directly harmful to you and you can afford to be harmed. You missed an opportunity to teach us about setting boundaries with parasitic behaviors. BTW I sued my contractor in small claims court over an issue similar but unfortunately was never able to collect the judgment because he was in jail for possesion with intent to deliver cocaine.
    Finally, a caveat form this: You didn’t know her very well. That is the lesson we need to hear about trusting another. Contractors underbid all the time but many of the same also overdeliver. This sort of taking advantage is classic in narcissistic abuse. All roses at the beginning, followed by gaslighting, devaluing, shifting responsibilty until you are left wondering if you were crazy looking for support from your readers in an essay like this. You have mine and I am extremely grateful to be reminded that in this world, mostly loving and kind one needs to check others out on many many levels before giving up “supplies” that enable this kind of behavior. My sympathies. Looking forward to your post on how narcissists hook us in, early warning signs. The classic narcissist’s target I’m told is someone who is kind, compassionate, and persevering and needs to be seen as such thus will put up with more and more and more abuse while giving the benefit of the doubt. I truly wish for your happiness but there may be some “idiot compassion” ( not my term but a lovely one) displayed here that can teach us all something. I also take note and do not join the other reader in some insistence that you do follow up with some constructive lesson for us all. Just chirping in my own sense on a difficult subject ending with a genuine sorry this happened to you. (As an addition, I recently move,— I held my movers accountable for damages and received a partial refund, home contents liquidators “sold” an important piece of yard equipment by accident and it was replaced. After learning about narcissistic abuse ( I know it’s a pop psychology term now) I am very quick to kindly and with respect and dignity to the other to set boundaries and expectations and take no excuses. We feel better when we don’t participate in these acts by enabling. Will I be cheated, lied to, given excuses again. YES! Do we live in a world of loving kindness usually…YES except when we don’t.

    1. I see your point, I didn’t know Peggy very well, but I’m not prepared to call this narcissistic abuse unless we define it in fairly broad terms. On some level, I think Peggy knows she did a bad job and took advantage of us, but she can’t quite bring herself to acknowledge it, even to herself. How many people do you know who are willing to say, “I’m sorry, I really screwed up. It’s all my fault”? Hardly anyone I know will do that. As for my role, I can’t agree with you there. I’ve known Peggy for five years, I gave her the benefit of the doubt because I liked her, and I gave her repeated opportunities to come through because she had done so in the past. I’m guilty of being too trusting, perhaps, but I don’t see that as pathological or colluding.

      1. “How many people do you know who are willing to say, “I’m sorry, I really screwed up. It’s all my fault”? ”

        I’ve started to hear that more and more often the less understanding I’ve become – say, I’ve made a point not to give people second chances unless they explicitly want one and work for it. I make a point not to make excuses for other people, specially not when they are making their own excuses and blaming some other people or me.

        In this instance that meant firing Peggy right at the first misstep.

        Before I learned this I made the same Peggy mistake with a bunch workers (I ran a design studio) and ended up in bankruptcy, plus with no sympathy from them even thought they made my biz crash down. You might not want to call it narcissistic abuse but Im aware I led the situation with my codependent way of handling their bad work ethics and buying into the ridiculous drama and betting on their success with my own money when they were more interested on other things, like getting paid without working.

  13. I have a theory that we all expect others to behave the way we would behave in a given situation which, in the case of being lied to, results in non-liars to want very strongly to disbelieve what we are clearly hearing. It is really hurtful to be faced with such mean-spirited behavior, & we find it difficult to believe that people would behave that way toward us. The other side of my theory is that people who lie believe that everyone lies. Maybe that’s one of the lies they tell themselves to justify their own behavior which they have convinced themselves is normal. Earlier I mentioned a quote which I attributed to A. Lincoln. I checked on it & discovered that it was from Mark Twain. I’m correcting that so as not to be accused of having lied! This posting reminds me of another quote from Vanderbilt?/Astor?/Carnegie?/Whoever which seems to characterize the thinking that we are discussing: “Do unto others as they would want to do unto you, but do it first.”

  14. Sounds horrendous by the way. However, I’m not really sure what the difference is if a lie, or any other behavior for that matter is conscious or unconscious. Does that then mean that people are not responsible for something ‘unconscious’ they do ? Because on some level I think if something is unconscious, and therefore potentially out of our control, on some level we still know about it even if unconsciously. What do you think?

    1. Yes, I agree. For me, the fact that it is unconscious makes it different from when a person consciously dissembles with malice or in order to manipulate and control. Self-deceived people aren’t bad they’re just … well, self-deceived.

  15. What a bad experience! a slippery slope from moral justification to one’s self into moral disintegration. Dan Ariely’s work comes to mind – he has a documentary film about to come out. bd

  16. The only thing we can safely say is that Peggy has done a bad job. Judging wether she is a good or a bad person can only be done based on assumptions. I tend to assume the best of people. It saves me grom a lot of unnecessary anger and fear of being judged when screwing up myself.
    Then again, I’m going through another bout of major depression so I might have gotten the wrong end of the stick 😉

    1. It would seem to me that thinking too well of Peggy, giving her a very large benefit of the doubt in the face of repeated disappointment, is what got us into trouble.

      1. I think Peggy bit off more than she could chew and can’t admit it even to herself. Perhaps facing up to failure, i.e. not being perfect is too unbearable? Hence shifting the failure elsewhere- the suppliers and sub- contractors and also you for not paying up? Whatever the reason it’s damaging herself and you and I hope it gets resolved soon.

  17. Dear Dr Burgo

    What a horrible experience! I thought my family’s experience might give you some hope. We had a similar experience with a very old friend. There was also lying, mismanagement of funds and at the poorly completed end of a long and troubled project he left my poor city dwelling mom alone on a farm in Africa with a bunch of keys for an incomplete house just as the sun was setting and the most intense darkness and quietness was setting in. He then ignored her calls and messages asking for help getting the plumbing to work or how to lock up so she would be safe at night. She was devastated that someone she considered a friend would treat her so badly.

    I’m still not sure who made the first move and why, but after time had softened the experience we reconnected with him. Even though it’s never been openly discussed, from what I can piece together he was in way over his head with this project and realized that the proposed budget, timeline, nothing was working out and he was embarrassed and upset. He also had some personal upheavals at the time that distracted him from his work and made it even harder to pull off an ambitious project. He probably left the farm that evening feeling just as horrible as my mom did.

    He now spends Christmas with our family and we have all put it behind us as a lesson never to do business with friends.

    Just to clarify I’m not in any way defending what Peggy did or suggesting that you should stay her friend, it sounds like she really took advantage of you and treated you badly.

    Sorry for your bad experience

    1. That does make me feel more hopeful. People often do things they later feel ashamed of when they’re under emotional/financial pressure and don’t know how to cope with it.

  18. As some one with a background in construction, construction management and (for the past 10 years) investment real estate I certainly have experienced the self-serving lie. It’s easy, for many, to blame others. Taking responsibility and accepting the consequences of our actions is difficult, but must be done if we are to be honest and to have integrity. To have a life (and business) of excellence is not possible without responsibility. I’ve discovered that hard times and mistakes and failures we experience do not build character. Rather the hard times, mistakes, and failures bring out our true character.

    Thank you for allowing me to comment.

    1. Thanks, Paul. And I agree about personal responsibility. Seems rare these days for someone to truly own their mistakes and errors in judgment. Or maybe I’m just growing cynical.

  19. And here is another quote I once heard that a politician was alleged to have said: “do unto others first, then get the hell out of town”.

  20. I agree with Yohami – in that, over these last four yrs, dealing with the fallout from my ex partners behaviour, I act very quickly if a situation ” feels” abusive to me. I felt like I bent over, sideways, backwards for so many yrs- ” allowing” for the unconscious motivations etc .. But now, I very clearly state my boundaries and the other person has to do the work of making conscious their unconscious; I’ll leave relationships behind , if, after trying a few times to have my position acknowledged, no understanding or insight comes from the other side.
    My head and my heart these days just have such clarity.

  21. This whole story goes to show why one is wise to keep friend and family relationships separate from business relationships.
    It sucks if she is making your neighbors think badly of you. Surely its none of the neighbors’ business. But then again, neither is it my business to be honest. Seems like the story is still a bit too fresh.
    On the topic of self serving lies, I think envy can be a big trigger to self-delusion. An example is Robin Hood justifying his thievery.
    Maybe I’m looking too far into it, but why would the same contractor make so many mistakes now when past work had been good? Surely one is meant to get better with experience. It seems rather strange, specially when some of the mistakes like leaving debris under the house are so easily avoidable. Could it be due to envy? Or maybe the contractor is going through a hard time in their personal life. That doesn’t justify the shoddy work, but it might be a reason.

  22. This is a fantastic article. I have always struggled to get a handle on the concept that someone goes from knowingly telling a lie- to save face/avoid punishment; whatever,- to actually believing that lie. My father lies chronically to avoid responsibility and has done throughout his life- I actually get the impression at times that he believes his own lies, and I wonder if he is mad. Or perhaps he just believes his lies in that moment- like a ‘method actor’. How can you help yourself if you are self-deceived? It worries me to think that I might be self deceived at times, but just not know it. I would really hate to be that way.

    1. I think the way to tell if you’re self-deceived is to monitor your reactions. For example, the feeling of self-righteous indignation always tells me that I’m lying to myself. That’s when I step back and ask myself what is my contribution.

  23. Love this post because we all lie to ourselves to some degree and we all have our own Peggys to deal with. I used to live in Colorado where I worked as a mediator for the Colorado Judicial Branch, Office of Dispute Resolution, resolving civil disputes (a great alternative to litigation, saving time, money and stress). Mediation restored my faith in people. Even when two parties came in feeling angry and victimized, with very different views of what happened and what should happen for a fair resolution, they would almost always be able to resolve their conflict to mutual satisfaction. Why? A neutral 3rd party, asking them to consider the other’s point of view, and – as what mentioned in the comments above – asking them to apologize for their mistakes and shortcomings, does wonders for the communication process. People were willing to have their higher selves summoned, but it simply took another person – not the one they were in conflict with – to do this. People really do want to do good. They want to look back and feel good about how they handled a conflict. They just need someone to show them the way. Unfortunately most lawyers tell us we are “right” in our rightousness and greed, they reinforce our fear and anger. Meditation can do wonders (I say this even though I’m no longer a mediator!)

    1. I’m curious about why you’re no longer a mediator. It sounds like such a satisfying line of work. Your comment made me think about my future, about how I might “belong” within a new community. Becoming a mediator might be one rewarding way.

  24. Hmm….seems like she is addicted to a self-image of competency that cannot make room for the proof that she is not as impeccable or as ‘on the ball’ in her skillset as she once used to be.

    Was the fee she quoted for the work ‘friend’s rates’ or the full fare? If she had given you (or other acquaintances/friends) a discounted rate then she has issues with valuing herself.

    She has actually received a year’s worth of therapy from you but I doubt she will be able to shift out of the ‘aggrieved posture’ to mine the experience. Your duty of care to yourself is to follow through with the notifications to the Consumer Affairs groups and not have anything to stew over or stick in your craw down the track.

    Incidents like this are akin to getting a mouth full of porcupine quills.

    1. To my knowledge, it wasn’t a “friends and family” rate. I have now notified the Consumer Affairs department and am focused on taking care of the remaining work. Just moving on.

  25. I’m going to blame the victim on this one. Joe, your a great human being and I empathise with your frustration but you shouldn’t have agreed to her first manipulation of the contract “paying the final payment ( or half of that) early” you can’t tolerate minor deviations like this because of the slippery slope/ broken window principle. Once someone has you for a sucker It’s give an inch take a mile…….I also know it feels right to work with people you like but I think there’s a moral here that once someone is so close to you you can’t fire them It’s time to seek a new employee. I’m sorry for your predicament.

  26. You wrote in replies to comments…
    …” I don’t know about any personal stresses in her life, but I think she has felt under extreme financial pressure for underbidding the job.”

    “Underbidding the job” – is that what you call receiving a friend’s rate? Before signing the contract, had you received quotes from independent non-friend contractors to establish a base-line?

    If you had, I suggest that this person most likely felt a “personal stress” to do a better price for friends.

    My question is: why are you sticking the blog-boots in when it is enough to register the experience with Consumer Protection and Better Business Bureau etc..

    Seems excessively vindictive. In your own words: “Self-deceived people aren’t bad they’re just … well, self-deceived.”

  27. Over this past summer, I was reminded of this unpleasant experience during a contract “Peggy, our contractor, has been a friend over the last five years.”

    ” Throughout our relations, she has been entirely reliable.”

    “It’s hard to believe that these character traits and ways of engaging in relationships don’t show up in her personal life, but honestly, they never did before this contract.”

    “Then again, we don’t know her terribly well.”

    Peggy isn’t a friend, despite the fact that you may have felt friendly towards her, but as you pointed about above you also didn’t know her well. She probably accurately assessed that you would give her the benefit of the doubt and with that knowledge it has allowed her to take advantage of your generous nature or possibly naivete. She’s manipulative and I’m certain that she has behaved this way previously even if if you are unaware of it. She’s demonstrating what is often described as “covertly aggressive” personality traits.

    Unfortunately I’ve encountered these types of people so often, including my SIL and FIL, that I’ve read a ton of books on the topic of manipulation and one even discussed the dynamic of being the kind of person to give the would be manipulator the benefit of the doubt.

    Peggy is actually someone who is using covert aggressive behavior to get what she wants. She never gives you a straight answer. In fact she’s expert at knowing how to to change the subject or dodge the issue in some way–giving you the runaround to throw you a curve. Actaully one of the books asserts that much of what we’ve been taught about why and how most people behave simply doesn’t apply to aggressive personalities.

    She may not be a “bad” person but she definitely isn’t behaving well towards you either is she! Her actions clearly demonstrate otherwise. Her behavior is neither decent or respectful to say the least. I think it important to judge actions, not intentions. There’s no way for you to really know, and in the end, it’s irrelevant. Aside from that getting caught up in what might be going on in her mind is a good way to get sidetracked from the really pertinent issue.

    The bottom-line is that it doesn’t matter whether she underbid the project and came under financial pressure, because the consequence are the very real issues that you are having to deal with now.

    I don’t believe that her behavior is unconscious. You just didn’t know her well enough to assess this side of her character and people like her are adept at concealing their agendas. I think that she’s behaved this way previously and learned that it works.

    I regret this situation as I’m certain it created stress and I’m sorry that you had to experience it. It’s just another one to add to the list of disappointing “people” experiences that you’ve already wrote about previously.

    The one thing that your conveying this story has done is to have provided me with the impetus to re-read some of these books again given my experiences. As I mentioned above I’ve unfortunately had a lot of experience with dealing with covertly aggressive people.

    1. No doubt you’re right. In spite of my experience, I am still trying to give her the benefit of the doubt! And I agree that we should judge actions rather than intentions.

  28. Oh My!!!!!!!!!!! There are alot of smart people on this post. I recently had a 80 foot tree fall on my roof above my bed. It partially fell down and obliterated my air unit. I am fine but all the sub contracting has been a mess so far. This tree has caused other factors. Well it has been a bad incident (like the Tide commercial) of the stained shirt talking to a therapist on a couch. It is AWFUL.
    So I empathise.
    As for Peggy I will not judge but suspect she bit off way more than she could chew or swallow and her lies were to protect her not you.

    1. The Tree totally fell but bounced to the air conditioner. Just wanted to clarify this.
      This is my third new unit in eight years t. It is my third roof in 8 years and my second heating unit. So I know it is not my first or last Rodeo as Dr, Phill says ALOT. I just want you to know I think you did a great job dealing with your contractor. Oh by the way how much is your fee for online conversation? Just feel the need to speak to you. I am ok just still shaken not stirred yet! That was supposed to make you laugh! Let me know please. No rush.

  29. I read your newest post regarding this post as personal vs. professional and then read this and all the comments. I enjoy believing that one can employ logic to unpack a problem and then adhere to logical reasoning when solving it. This necessarily requires an individual to keep an eye open on themselves for any faulty thinking during the reasoning process. This is so very hard to actually practice consistently given the sheer number of value judgments and decisions we each must day every day.
    Your post provided a discussion point for which many lied to themselves in their very responses. I don’t judge the responses as sophomoric or intellectually dishonest because your blog is open to the public rather than limited to philosophers and psychologists. Yet, I think it’s worth pointing out that the majority of us lie to ourselves every day and quite often. Within this thread, one commenter employed an Ad hominem, another citing Contextomy, and the especially nasty Tu quoque from someone who thinks your post makes you a liar just like Miss Peggy. There were quite a few ‘If Burgo says it, it must be’ biases in your favor. Given the number of informal fallacies (which I’m suggesting are lies to oneself) upon which the commenters relied, I’d say it was an effective post: We apparently all lie to ourselves, both about ourselves and about others.
    That said, I’m in California and do not know a General Contractor’s professional standards and business practices in Colorado, but I suspect she violated her industry’s rules and regulations in the progress payment demands and subcontractor payments as well as the lien threats before all / majority of contract completed. You’re dealing with that with the steps you’ve taken – but Miss Peggy is a piece of work whose lies might decrease with a fine or license suspension.

    1. Nicely said, Michelle. I suppose it needs to be pointed out that I lied to myself along the way, as well. And probably lied to myself as I was writing the post. In retrospect, there was definitely some vengeful venting involved, but I won’t take it back.

  30. The reason people like Peggy are still in business is because they consistently get away with their behaviour. They get away with it because their clients can’t bear to think that they may have been conned or taken advantage of. The same goes for many con artists, lotharios and other users. In your case you are in denial (as evident by psychoanslysing her rather simply looking at her actions). My guess is you feel shame at being taken advantage of, so it’s easier for you to see her as a troubled person, rather than for the bad person she clearly really is. I understand how you feel as I’ve done it myself too x

  31. This post so much resonated with me. I had a contractor build an entire floor to our newly purchased home. We paid him in cash every end of the week according to progress. At the end stage we were in a rush to move in and he promised to return to finish all the things that he hadn’t done, immediately after the holiday.
    He has played with us, not answered to our phone or emails ever since then.
    My brother in law tried setting up a meeting with him and heard all he had to say about us…lies and more lies to cover himself for not having finished the work although we had almost fully finished paying. We did even make a list of what needed seeing to, he has come down and agreed to what needed to get done, promised he would come to do the stuff, but it never happened.
    I have not finished my home since and am under a lot of pressure from this.
    My nature being very straight and not being able to swallow that someone took me on a ride avoids me from taking someone else to finish the job. My lack of energy to fight it out avoids me from chasing the contractor.
    I can’t take the fact that he was so nice at the beginning, he is a vip contractor with a high price…the reason we hired him was in order to have peace of mind, but I had everything but that…
    This story has triggered me so much that it litterally made me start psychotherapy (1.5 yrs ago)…and I’ve done plenty work but haven’t been able to even touch this subject…my T knows it’s something we need to approach but we haven’t yet
    I did feel encouraged to read this post and see it’s hard for anyone to deal with such people…

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