I could have been a professional actor by the age of 5. I learned early on that my mission in life was to be whoever my dad wanted me to be. My experience with him as a young child convinced me that my thoughts and perspectives were always wrong unless they were in line with his. He was never happy and it was my fault. Bottom line: I was never good enough.
I figured out that acting opposite of how I felt kept people away from my secret. I succeeded in academics and became a vicious competitor in my areas of strength. I was consistently rewarded for my aggressive mentality and performance. It was a great trade-off — I would perform at a high level and no one would mess with the real me. I felt alone, but I was safe from being exposed. And the latter was most important. Years later I learned that I was anything but alone.
As a psychotherapist who specializes in counseling high-performance men whose careers and social lives were thriving but whose lives at home were falling apart, I heard my story over and over. They all had the same feelings of worthlessness as me. Most, like me, inherited their low self-worth from a father figure (or the lack of one). We translated success into being a good person. So, like me, they honed their strengths in an effort to be successful, because to be discovered for what we believed ourselves to be was to bring on exposure and rejection.
What I and those I’ve worked with experience is described as the “Impostor Phenomena,” a term coined in the 1970s by two doctoral students at the University of Georgia. Almost every client I’ve ever worked with has lived in constant fear that he’d be revealed as an impostor. I used to live waiting to be discovered for the loser I knew I was, even though I consistently achieved beyond expectations.
I have yet to meet a man with a similar upbringing that didn’t feel the same. And because a poor self-image is rooted deep within the psyche, it always wins. That’s why we see prolific men making obviously stupid decisions, resulting in their being rejected. Tiger Woods is not a stupid man, nor, I believe, a sex addict. But I do believe him to suffer from Impostor Phenomena. He clearly set himself up to fail — confirming a deeply seeded opinion of self as a worthless human being. He created a self-fulfilling prophecy. We often see the same things happening politics and entertainment. Many of us do that.
Until I dealt with my distorted thinking that I was somehow less than the next guy, I couldn’t change my self-image and be the quality man I had always wanted to be. It’s the same for the guys I work with. We work together to flesh out the muck in hopes of finding the truth, that none of us is any more or any less than anyone else. High performance is great as long as it’s a want. But if it’s a need, we’re in trouble. It wasn’t easy for me, but I changed. And if I can do it, anyone can. I’m not an impostor anymore, I’m just Evan.
Evan Katz is a licensed counselor who specializes in counseling angry teens and angry men. He is the author of the new book, Inside the Mind of an Angry Man.