Who's Behind the Mask? Faking Your Life vs. Being Authentic

If you're always thinking, "Nobody really knows me," can you ever be satisfied?

Posted Apr 28, 2020

She asked me, “At what point do you stop feeling like an imposter in your own life?”

The short answer I gave her was this: Never. But the feelings of being a fake can come less often, pass more swiftly, and do less damage than when you’re younger if you spend time figuring out who you actually are and either changing the parts you don't like or accepting them.

I know what I'm talking about: As a kid, I spent all my days being afraid of being found out, being caught, being discovered — not the way movie star is “discovered” but the way a criminal is discovered.

One of my earliest memories was the stunning realization that I could have a thought without either of my parents being able to read my mind. I was somewhere around four or five years old; I know it happened before kindergarten. If I had to identify my first moment of actual consciousness, this was it — and it combined duplicity with shame and blended success with concealment.

Picture the small backyard of our house in Brooklyn with the big family sitting outside, as we often did in the summer, on aluminum chairs on the asphalt in front of the garage. Ignoring the small patch of grass where hydrangeas bloomed, a flowering pear tree that offered shade and the fig tree that reigned supreme, the grownups would talk, smoke, and drink black coffee by the garage door, the theory being that somehow cool air was produced by its dark interior. 

What I remember without recalling the details was that one aunt, who was always nasty to my mother, was being particularly vicious that simmering afternoon. Nobody was defending my mom. Already fierce, brittle, and defensive, my little girl’s heart was savagely mad at my bullying aunt.

And I thought, “I hope she dies.”

Before the thought ended, I was already horrified that the words slipped through my mind the way a guard dog slips its chains and shows its fangs.

Waiting for what I was sure was going to happen — that my parents would recognize the viciousness in me — I stopped breathing and stood absolutely still. I waited for the punishment. Nothing happened. Nobody could tell how bad I was. From that day on, there was always a little part of myself divided from the rest of me.

That memory held my conscience hostage all through childhood. Did a teacher like me? Did I get an award? Did I make a friend? “None of them know what you’re really like,” the powerful secret voice hissed. “Other people genuinely deserve it. You don’t.” Many of us hear that voice, the one that insists we’d never win in a fair fight and that anything we’ve achieved is either worthless or stolen.

This is the voice that tells you, “You’re such a fake, you’re not even a moth dressed as a butterfly. You’re just a worm with cardboard wings.”

How does it get better? Do achievements and accomplishments dilute the venom of your saboteur? Not for long and not by much — not according to those of us who grew up looking over our shoulders for those who would repossess our shoplifted victories and take back everything we’ve done.

There are people who, when given a compliment, immediately reply with: "Thanks, but....”

“Thanks, but” is the motto of the sinister self, the one who insists you’re not all you’re cracked up to be: “But I know you’re faking it ... But you’re barely able to keep up ... But if you can do it, c’mon, how hard can it be?”

But even if the sense of being an imposter, or a fake, or a hack doesn’t disappear altogether, it happens less often when the pieces of your life fit together more neatly.

Taking responsibility for your real failures allows you to accept your real successes.

Therapy helps. Honesty helps. Facing your emotions helps. What really helps is when you stop pretending to accept your immeasurable imperfections and actually accept them.

And stop convincing yourself it’s cooler when you sit near the garage.