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How Did I Not See This and What Do I Do Now?

Imposters, believers and the way to a stronger self.

Key points

  • Imposters have psychopathic traits and can be dangerous to others.
  • Certain people are more susceptible to being fooled by imposters.
  • Understanding one's own personality and history can be self-protective and healing.

The "imposter" according to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Phyllis Greenacre, is a person who enjoys getting something over on others. The falsification may involve identity, history, ancestry, accomplishment, education, or profession. Imposters can pretend to themselves as well. Because their morality is guided by what gratifies them, lies can grow bigger, truer, and easier to spew. Pretending may offer comfort as well as opportunity. Recent examples include Clark Rockefeller (or Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter) and Anna Delvey (or Anna Sorokin), criminals who passed themselves off as socialites.

This condition has traits that are also characteristic of psychopathy: duplicitousness, deception, conning, glibness, egocentricity, entitlement, parasitism, exploitation, lack of guilt, conscience deficit, lack of emotional depth, and impulsivity. Imposters have been considered a subset of psychopaths. Though the motivations and presentations of psychopathic people vary, imposters stand out for their skill at disguise.


Fooling others may be experienced as a freedom as well as a form of power. One is suspended above it all, like a puppet master. Dr. Paul Ekman, researcher and psychologist, wrote about duping delight and facial expressions. He describes the fast, fleeting, and specific micro-expressions used by dupers or imposters. Their tiny smirk conveys the pleasure felt in manipulating and controlling another. As an aside, imposter syndrome sufferers are almost the opposite. These individuals tend to be conscientious; feel unworthy, not entitled, and somewhat anxious; and usually have not used shortcuts or exploitations to achieve status or success. They usually actually have the abilities they are purported to have.

Susceptible Others

Those who fall for the fabrications of the imposter are blind co-conspirators, and certain proclivities render them susceptible. They may love being swept up, charmed, or relieved of their own thoughts, agonies, and mundanities. Trusting or needful individuals who relish heroic tales that bring light, gloss, hope, or a sense of justice into their unfair-feeling, grievance-heavy, trauma-inflicted, or somehow-starved lives may find hope in the imposter's spin. The savior belief alone (as opposed to actual results) can be succor, as mindset is powerful. Vulnerable seekers or traumatized souls may fall in with a sense that they have been rescued or elevated. They may just love the excitement.

Because they say and do things we might eschew or forbid in ourselves, daredevil imposters also deliver a vicarious sense of freedom, a walk on the wild side. Their "badness" might be interpreted by others as bravery and provide a taboo thrill. As leaders, they can influence followers to tamp down the inner moral voice, directly or by example. Their thrumming verbalizations have an opiate-like effect. Clouded reason and escalated emotion can rope people in, rile them up, and mobilize them to take extreme action. Thus intoxicated, devotees and supporters might do things that go against self, others, and better judgment.

On Language and the "As-If"

A related condition, the "as if" personality, was first described by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Helene Deutsch. The as-if, with their air of inauthenticity, emit "no originality" in their speech. It's canned or mimicked. Instead of stemming from a strong, clear self, words and thoughts are borrowed. Phrases, emphases, and points are culled to elicit certain responses. The as-if is like a chameleon, good at knowing what qualities a person will connect to and how to conjure them to build a pseudo-bond. This visceral astuteness, replete with insight and devoid of actual compassion, is powerful for getting people to be all-in. The imposter overlaps with the as-if as well as the psychopath.

The Impact

Over time, damage can be done to individuals and societies. For those once ensconced, now released, concrete losses accompany insidious psychological tolls. For an individual, it's daunting to realize that one's own discerning mind was not reliable. How was I duped? What was I thinking? What went wrong? What is wrong with me? Group followers might feel brainwashed, baffled about how they got there, and worried about regaining footing. The Keith Raniere case is one such story. How did idealization and trust become shock and disgust? Who is this person? Where do I go from here?

Trying to convince devotees in the throes of devotion that facts don't add up, behaviors are questionable, bad things are happening, and the imposter is not who he seems, can be futile. One reason for blocked insight might be that the capacity for extreme baseness is foreign for certain people. They may not be able to fully grasp, empathize with, or imagine themselves into the ho-hum, all-in-a-day transgressions of the imposter. "The eyes cannot see what the mind does not know," as the saying goes. They want to and do believe in goodness. If their role in his story relieves angst and gives them place, even if it is all based on distortion, they may not want to let go. The wish to be duped can be a form of escape. Idealization can be a way of not reckoning with disappointments.

Next Steps and Healing

Breaking off ties and relying on self, solid others, and reality-based paths to improved living helps. Though these answers are less of a high, they deliver real results. Addressing one's own core concerns and filling voids with actual solutions is useful but it might take some digging and reflection. We repress, suppress, displace, and compartmentalize for good reason, but when our defenses deter growth, it is best to gently dismantle them. In the end, one might need some special support for the strange trauma of having lived, participated in, or believed in a fairy tale. It can be tempting to relinquish critical thought and just follow an authoritative being but the seduce-abuse story is not uncommon.

Underlying Matters and Trip Ups

As far as underlying phenomena are concerned, the imposter has identity struggles and an infarcted conscience. This can stem from early challenges like being shamed and humiliated or excess competitiveness without the attributes to compete. While they may have shame (discomfort with who they are) they do not suffer from guilt (discomfort with what they do).

The masterful imposter has found a shortcut to success, but sustaining this is tough. Showmanship might do them in. People might get fed up. Time reveals. If they expose by bragging, for example, people start to figure it out. Also, if people in their paths ascertain what their real needs are and get them met, the imposter becomes irrelevant.

Greenacre writes,

"Fraud was successful only because many others as well as the perpetrator had a hunger to believe in the fraud, and that any success of such fraudulence depended in fact on strong social as well as individual factors and a special receptivity to the trickery. To this extent those on whom the fraudulence is imposed are not only victims but unconscious conspirators. Its success too is partly a matter of timing. Such combinations of imposturous talent and a peculiar susceptibility of the times to believe in the swindler, who presents the deceptive means of salvation, may account for the great impostures of history."


Paul Ekman Group. Getting away with lies. December 2009.

Phyllis Greenacre. The impostor. 1958. Psychoanal Q. 2011;80(4):1025–1046.

Dan Bova. From Rags to Riches to Ruin: Inside the Twisted World of Con Man "Clark Rockefeller." The Entrepreneur. November 9, 2023.

Shannon Carlin. The True Story Behind Netflix’s Inventing Anna. Time. February 11, 2022.

Carla Correa. A Timeline of the Nxivm Sex Cult Case. New York Times. July 5, 2023.

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