Why People Catfish, According to a Psychiatrist

Many of us have watched TV shows about catfishing or chuckled at jokes online about people showing up to dates as someone drastically different than their pictures. A phenomenon that didn't even have a name a couple decades ago is now a regularly used term, and anyone who's ventured into the world of online dating has passing thoughts about catfishing on occasion. Though the TV shows and memes that have come about because of catfishing provide us with entertainment, all jokes aside, catfishing is an ugly lived reality for some people, and it can have lasting effects on the victim.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, catfishing is when someone uses a phony online persona to cajole someone into a relationship. It tends to be more than a little white lie like listing your height as 5'10" when you're really only 5'9". Instead, it's usually a much bigger scheme that involves an entire profile of stolen images, a made-up backstory, and maybe even a fake name.

To learn more about the phenomenon, POPSUGAR spoke with Judith Joseph, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and wellness expert, to see why people catfish in the first place and what you can do if you've been catfished by someone you met online.

Why Do People Catfish?

There's no one reason people catfish, but one thing all catfish have in common is a willingness to deceive. "Catfishing has its roots in dishonesty, and people are dishonest for many reasons," Dr. Joseph tells POPSUGAR. "At the most innocent end of the spectrum, people are dishonest because they are afraid, anxious of being rejected, or because they are insecure." For example, someone who lacks confidence in their looks might make a profile using someone else's photos so they can feel more confident hiding behind a different persona. Someone who tends to be a little more shy or anxious in social situations might create a persona that's more bold or outgoing to test the waters of a different kind of self-expression without risking injury to themselves.

"At the most insidious end of the spectrum, there are people with antisocial personality disorder," Dr. Joseph continues. "These individuals are commonly labeled as sociopathic, and they tend to lie and con others for money and/or pleasure."

What Are Catfishing Red Flags?

Unfortunately, catfishing is a risk that comes with online dating — you won't know whether someone is truly who they say they are until you see them face to face. Luckily, there are signs or red flags you can look out for to protect yourself. According to Dr. Joseph, some common red flags that might indicate you're talking to a catfish are:

  • They're inconsistent and there are contradictions in their stories.
  • They tend to post professional or model-looking images.
  • They say they're in the military or active duty and have extreme reasons for why they can't talk on the phone or meet in person.
  • They don't want you to speak with their friends or family.
  • They ask for money or favors that make you uncomfortable.

In this era of online dating, these red flags are something to look out for. Apps like Bumble and Badoo offer the option of photo verification, which can add an extra layer of security. If you want to do a little sleuthing yourself, you can consider searching images, social media accounts, and phone numbers online to verify someone's identity.

How Can You Deal With Getting Catfished?

It's totally normal and understandable to feel a variety of pained emotions if you're the victim of catfishing. Though instinctively you might feel guilty, embarrassed, or like it's your fault, Dr. Joseph says that it's important to avoid blaming yourself for the experience. Self-blame is a common theme Dr. Joseph sees in her clinical practice, but it's key to remember that it's not your fault.

"They feel foolish for falling for something that they believe should have been an obvious con," Dr. Joseph says. "However it is important to remember that many people who catfish have used this pattern of deceit numerous times on many individuals, and they have perfected the art of targeting and fooling others. It is important to talk about the experience instead of shaming yourself."

This type of experience will affect each individual differently, so allow yourself the time and grace to process your feelings, however intense they may be. "Being catfished can feel like being traumatized," Dr. Joseph says. "Many people fall into patterns of depression and despair when they cannot share their experiences with others due to shame, and they carry this burden alone."

Narrative therapy and journaling are a few of Dr. Joseph's recommendations for identifying any patterns that could have led you to that experience. "When you recognize patterns that you want to change," she says, "you can be more aware of how to avoid them so that you do not repeat past mistakes."