You know that feeling when someone constantly keeps trying to flatter you, and you just know that they don’t mean any of it?
Yes, that clawing feeling.
It’s all part of being fake, as anyone would tell you. What does being fake mean to people? There seem to be varying understandings of it. “Someone’s who is sweet to you, but actually stabs you in the back,” says Ashlesha Goswami, a Dubai-based expat and homemaker. “Superficial. You know they could care less about you,” adds Mavis Kate, an Abu Dhabi-based Canadian marketing professional.
The characteristics pour in: A person who enjoys playing the victim. Someone who revels in drama. A person who gossips. They love being the center of attention. They produce a new personality with different people. Dubai-based Caitlyn Jefferson, a British freelancer recalls an acquaintance who was so determined to be friends with her that she pretended to be an Arsenal Football club fan like her. “And then she started naming Manchester United players, so I knew she was a complete fake,” she added.
Sometimes, the mask falls. However, why are people so keen to wear these masks?
Masking, faking and camouflaging
Who is a fake person?
Nusrat Khan, a Dubai-based clinical psychologist at Human Relations Institute & Clinics, Dubai, explains the different ‘symptoms’ of a fake person. “We really need to understand what makes a fake person. It’s not just about someone lying, or their words not matching their actions, or just the inauthentic way they present themselves. It’s also not just someone who is acting out or manipulative,” she says.
There isn’t just one understanding of a fake person. Many people tend to hide behind a mask; to avoid being in touch with their actual emotions that might be difficult or unpleasant. “There is a lot of masking involved. They could be masking their behaviour, condition, or in the way they act, or the way they present. There is a façade that they create about their social or professional life,” she explains.
A child grows up in the environment where they think that what they feel is not important, but how others feel is important. And so, adults also tend to mould the child in this way. We get them to follow societal norms, and this is where the camouflaging begins...
Just like Jefferson’s story, others have similar tales of people constructing elaborate facades, just to belong in a group. Sherry Lin (name changed on request), a Dubai-based Thai expat, reveals she is ‘guilty’ of this. “I think it emerged out of fear of being bullied in school. If you didn’t know something, you were mocked,” she says.
Recalling how she didn’t know any popular rock-bands when growing up, she had to pretend to be a fan, to avoid being teased in school. “I lied through my teeth, and somehow it became my reflex till my late twenties. I followed the motto: Always pretend to know something, even if you don’t. I was a completely different person, pretending to like bands that I didn’t, following sports that I didn’t want to. Just, to feel like I belong somewhere. It took me a long time to actually just say, yeah ‘I don’t know that song’. Deal with it,” says the 33-year-old expat.
The fear in the formative stages: The creation of the false self
Elaborating more on this fear that breeds in a child at a young age, Khan explains, “A child grows up in the environment where they think that what they feel is not important, but how others feel is important. And so, adults also tend to mould the child in this way. We get them to follow societal norms, and this is where the camouflaging begins,” she says. It’s also the way society operates, which increases the probability of people faking.
Parents have a pivotal role in cultivating the authentic self for a child, explains Wesley Kew, Dubai-based clinical psychologist at LightHouse Arabia. Parents who are overwhelmed, emotionally distant or punitive, create hindrances for the child in finding their true self. “In these environments, children learn to adapt their behaviours and suppress their natural expressions to align with their caregiver's emotional needs. This adaptation, while a survival mechanism, often leads to the development of a 'false self',” he says. This ‘false self’ masks ones true emotions and desires, to avoid conflict and abandonment.
Moreover, they face fear of rejection and judgement. “It’s a crucial need as humans, to belong somewhere. When that emotion is compromised, we try to adapt and acquiesce to the environment,” he says. “The false self is further developed through societal and cultural expectations,” adds Kew. People worry about fitting in, and they start hiding themselves.
It’s a crucial need as humans, to belong somewhere. When that emotion is compromised, we try to adapt and acquiesce to the environment. The false self is further developed through societal and cultural expectations...
We want to act in the way that is acceptable and liked by others, and so we start piecing together an inauthentic personality, as Khan explains.
This is clearly evident in relationship dynamics, adds Khan. Many people ‘fake’ it in relationships, as they fear the “drama” and “hurt” that comes with ending something. “So, they’ll continue to be in a relationship, to keep the other person happy, at the cost of our own wellbeing,” she says.
The damage of inauthenticity
Normally, when people discuss the idea of a ‘fake person’, they mean someone who forges relationships just for their own benefit; to gain something out of it, according to Khan.
“Such fake people, if their intention is only self-benefit, they will engage in transactional relationships. They do not have empathy towards others, and don’t take others needs into consideration. The approach is self-centered,” she says.
Nevertheless, the idea of a fake person is complicated; there are many variants present. “This could be damaging to the person, as well as their relationships. There will be a lot of emotional confusion. There is a lot of hurt and damage to the self-esteem, and it shakes the foundation of a relationship,” she explains. Lisa Connelly, an American Dubai-based life coach also elaborates further on the repercussions of being with a fake person, “There’s a strong sense of betrayal; it’s hard to regain someone’s trust, after that. You might have been putting up a façade because you wanted to belong, but others won’t be able to always see that. So, it breeds distrust and anger, and can be very emotionally damaging,” she says.
There are also important things to take into consideration, when addressing the tricky matter of a fake person, explains Khan. “Fake people contribute to a toxic environment, yes, but there are people who are faking for self-defence. So, are you faking to protect yourself from harm, or are you faking to gain something? Understanding that difference is important,” she says.
How can we embrace our real selves?
As Connelly explains, everyone ‘masks’ some parts of their personalities; nobody is their 100 ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ self with others. However, the problem arises when they start changing their belief system to align with other people, change themselves entirely, in order to please someone else.
So, how can we fix this? Kew has some suggestions:
1. Confront negative perceptions we've internalised: Start with challenging the notion that our real emotions are dangerous, unacceptable and unworthy. Do some introspection, and question who you are, beyond your roles and expectations.
2. Acknowledge the power of our negative self-perceptions and cultivate self-compassion: These perceptions, however rooted in past experiences, do not define our present or future. Overcoming them requires a conscious effort to cultivate self-compassion and forgiveness, both for others and ourselves, explains Kew. You need to accept that the past experiences do not dictate your current identity.
3. Work on finding your authentic self; what do you like, and what you don’t like, suggests Connelly. What is your opinion on subjects that your friends discuss? For example, if one of your friends says to you, “I love this song, what did you think of it?” Think whether you really loved it.
4. Realise that it is okay to disagree, says Connelly.