“Fake it until you make it” is an idea that has been a part of recovery lore for longer than I’ve been involved in recovery, and has gained some additional traction from various TED talks and research in the past few years. But, I worry that it’s not as simple as it’s made to seem, and I also worry that the phrasing is misleading. Let me talk about why, and then I’ll share an alternate phrasing that has worked better for me.
Amy Cuddy, in her popular TED Talk and her book Presence, talks about the very closely related idea of “fake it till you become it.” In my opinion, this phrasing is better, but still misleading. To speak about the idea as “faking it” suggests that we need to deceive the people around us, that we can’t admit the struggles we’re having, that our facade can have no cracks in it. We understand that we’re not “it” yet, but talking about faking it suggests that we can’t let anyone else know that we’re not it yet.
But, honesty about our own experience is one of the most powerfully freeing tools for dealing with low self-confidence. Early in my recovery, my sponsor shared with me the idea that “Lack of fear is not courage; lack of fear is brain damage.” Everyone has fears. Impostor syndrome is shockingly common even among extremely high-achieving people.1 Believing that we have to hide our struggles or we’ll be found out is impostor syndrome, not the solution to impostor syndrome.
One example from my personal experience. Many recovery meetings have a designated speaker who starts the meeting off by talking about their recovery experience for a while (15-45 minutes, depending on the meeting). In my time in recovery, I’ve been asked to be the speaker at a meeting so many times that I lost count decades ago. As best I can tell, it’s been a few hundred times — 300, maybe? After doing it a few dozen times, I figured out I was good at it and started to actually enjoy it.
Even enjoying it, and even with all that practice, I still sometimes get nervous. What works best for me when that happens is to start out, very first thing, telling everyone that I’m nervous — that I want to impress everyone, that I want them to like me, that I want to be the best speaker ever who says profound things that will change their lives forever. It’s all true, but it’s also kind of silly. That takes the power out of it, makes it clear to me that I’m not hiding something (there’s no possibility of being “found out”, because everyone already knows) and allows me to proceed more calmly. This practice doesn’t work every single time, but it works almost every single time. Many times, someone has come up to me after the meeting and said something like “I would have had no idea you were nervous if you didn’t tell us.” This is largely because opening up about the nervousness clears it up, and by the time I get a minute or two into talking I’m not actually nervous anymore.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we broadcast the idea that we’re “just faking it” to everyone we see and meet. There absolutely is merit to the idea of putting on a confident show, and there are situations in which that sort of disclosure is less appropriate. However, I am suggesting that in many situations, disclosing our fears and struggles can be empowering, not hazardous or harmful. I’m also suggesting that it’s hugely beneficial to have a core group of people with whom we can be completely honest about our struggles. Being able to disclose to someone that sometimes (maybe even most of the time) we’re just putting on that show takes much of the power out of the nervousness.
This ties in to the rephrasing of this idea that I like much better — the idea (also stolen from my recovery experience) of “act as if.” One of the clichés that gets tossed around recovery is the idea that “we don’t think our way into better living, we live our way into better thinking.” One of the ways to do that is by acting as if. If I were truly confident, how would I act in this situation? If I truly believed that I could achieve everything that I wanted, what would I do next? If I truly believed that I could not fail, what would I try to do?
After asking myself these questions, I then do those things. And, as Amy Buddy alluded to, I have found that I have mostly become that confident person who believes they can not fail. I’m not perfect, and I’m not always confident, but I’m way better than I used to be.
- For just one example, see the interview at https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathycaprino/2020/10/22/impostor-syndrome-prevalence-in-professional-women-face-and-how-to-overcome-it/ ↩