I'm a reformed catfish. It gives me no joy to say that. But at the time, I was alone, with no friends or anyone to love me, and I built an online persona to make myself feel better. The more time and energy I put into this alternate self, the more addicted to it I became. I tell you this not just as an apology, but in an attempt to help others understand why I did what I did. So often, catfishing stories in their myriad forms (MTV, books, websites) focus on the victims. But looking back on my own time pretending, I have some sympathy not just for those duped, but for those doing the duping.
Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Weill Cornell School of Medicine, suggests that being a catfish doesn't necessarily mean you are a bad person. Motivations vary. It can be about exerting power, of getting something over on someone else. Those are malicious motives, and they indicate a certain kind of emotional damage. But there are other kinds of hurt that catfishing can (temporarily) salve. Saltz describes people who might pretend to be someone else "because they are unhappy with who they are or think it is the only way to get what they want or need," whether that's admiration, love, or something else. These are the kind of drives that ought to be familiar to us all.
Lana (not her real name) is a 24-year-old Yale graduate, a lawyer making six figures working for a successful law firm in Los Angeles. Seven years ago, she was a catfish. She brushes aside the catfish stereotype — the unkempt loner living in a grandmother's basement, for example — that's not her. "I love stereotypes," she says, laughing. "They make me feel unique."
When Lana was 17, she fell in love with her high school prom king. Insecure about her body and too shy to even talk to him — "like a cow in a pack of deer waiting to mate with the King Reindeer" — she created an alter ego: Sonia.
Sonia was an attractive blonde who had it all. "I found a Ukrainian girl on Facebook, stole her photos, edited them in Photoshop, and posted them," Lana says. She friended other men on Facebook, racking up 1,200 friends. "When the time was right," she says. "I sent him a friend request." She was excited, but also wary — she compares it to the feeling before a first date.
Still, she believed in her plan: her crush would fall in love with "Sonia," who was really her, and then, when the time came, she'd simply reveal her true identity. By then, he would be so taken with his beloved that he wouldn't care who she "really was" — whatever that means! — and they would live happily ever after.
Gradually, though, she grew more attached to Sonia. "I loved who I was," she says. She had the attention of not just her crush, but also that of many other men. That attention made her feel like she was in control and no longer the shy girl who couldn't talk to the prom king. "I was powerful," she says. "At least online."
Catfishing does make you feel powerful and in control. It's a feeling I remember well. At the same time, though, you recognize that those positive feelings are coming from a negative place. What you're doing is wrong, on a fundamental level, and you know that. You are not the best version of yourself when you're deceiving a random person. You know that, but you don't care. You just need more.