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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Unmasking The Deceiver...Myself

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 22nd 2011

Unmasking The Deceiver...MyselfDo you know the old Rock n Roll song from the 1950s?" A few of the lyrics are: "Oh yes, I'm the great pretender, pretending to be what I'm really not...!" The song is by the Platters and nicely describes the psychological concept described in this article. Pretending:

1. Secretly worrying that others will find out that you're not as capable as they think you are.
2. Avoiding challenges because of self-doubt.
3. Attributing successes to being a "fluke," “no big deal” or that people like you.
4. Hating to make a mistake and being less than fully prepared to do a project, assignment or test.
5. Feeling crushed by criticism even when its constructive. 
6. When successful, believing that it was luck.
7. Believe that other people, especially competitors, are smarter than you.
9. Living in fear of being found out that you are a fraud.

Sound familiar to you? If so, you are suffering from the "Imposter Phenomenom." This syndrome is not listed in the DSM. However, it is all too common.

How many people I have known who are promoted at work and are then seized for overwhelming fear? Now, you might say that its natural to feel nervous after being promoted. You would be right but that is not the issue here.

During the years if my private psychotherapy practice, I met doctors, lawyers and teachers who suffered from believing they were frauds.

According to cognitive psychologist, Judit Beck, the characteristics of this syndrome are:

1. "They don't attribute success to their own positive qualities. "I got this far by luck." "I was in the right place at the right time." "I do well only because I have good people working for me."

2. They don't dwell on their achievements and keep raising the stakes higher. "I got that research grant but now I have to start thinking about the next one." "That performance went well but I have to do even better next time."

3. They have tunnel vision. They notice every instance where they think they should have done better or where they made a mistake. They then put a great deal of importance in what are usually minor flaws in their performance. On the other hand, they fail to notice, or fail to put sufficient importance on what they do well.

4. They discount their accomplishments. "I got a lot of applause but I didn't deserve it." "I made a lot of money but I should have made more." "I got an award but no one realizes how little I deserve it."

5. "They compare themselves unfavorably to others. Frequently they pick out the most outstanding people in their office or even in their field and judge their own performance accordingly."

What is awful about this is that it is accopanied by feelings akin to a terror that afflicts the life of the sufferer. Regardless of any success, the conviction is that It was just an accident or an act of deceipt. Understand that this has nothing to do with false modesty. The person with false modesty does attribute their success to their efforts but try to hide it to spare others. Of course, while they may think they are sparing others, they are really behaving in ways that are superior and patronizing. Contrary to this, the impostor is convinced that they fooled everyone. They feel ashamed of themselves, embarrassed and like liars.

What to do if you suffer from the imposter phenomenom? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is probably the best approach because, through it, one learns to recognive the faulty thinking that drives this. It also helps by replacing these negative thoughts by examining successes and leaning to attribute them to yourself.

One way to start, is to use one of the many self help books on CBT, or to go to our self help section on Mental Help Net.

Basically, the cognitive approach involves learning to say, "yes, this other person performed excellently but so did I."

An additional approach to practice self affirmations each day in order to reinforce the idea that you are capable.

Do you live in fear of being unmasked? Do have a loved one, child or adult, who suffers from this syndrome? Your comments, experiences and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Pretender - Allan N. Schwartz, Phd - Feb 22nd 2011


Thank you for the correction. Its been a long time for me. Anway, the correct lyrics work even better than my mistaken version and mistaken interpretation.

I really do rely on all of you to correct me correct me when I some of the details wrong.

Dr. Schwartz

Yep, that's me, too! - - Feb 22nd 2011

I have this syndrome. When I was younger I was in sales and I won an award for salesman of the year. It confused me, how was I 'the best"? It was all luck. My boss told me then about this syndrome. At first I thought he was crazy. I believe mine began with the childhood teaching to be "humble." It's still difficult to learn to walk the line of humility and recognize that I can have successes. I'm still working on it, thanks for the leads.

The Great Pretender - djbaxter - Feb 22nd 2011

You wrote: "you know the old Rock n Roll song from the 1950?" A few of the lyrics are: "Oh yes, I'm the great imposter, pretending to be what I'm really not...! Of course, in this case the pretending is to a girl to whom you have lied about who you are and what you do."

The song was recorded by the Platters originally but you have the lyrics and interpretation wrong. The singer was not lying about who he was. He was pretending to be happy when he was grieving the loss of a relationship:

Oh-oh, yes I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I'm lonely but no one can tell

Oh-oh, yes I'm the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own
I've played the game but to my real shame
You've left me to grieve all alone

Too real is this feeling of make-believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal

Yes, I'm the great pretender
Just laughin' and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I'm not, you see
I'm wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you're still around

Too real is this feeling of make-believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal

Yes, I'm the great pretender
Just laughin' and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I'm not, you see
I'm wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you're still around

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