Let’s stop saying “fake it til you make it.”

In a recent conversation with a friend about work issues and facing difficult situations, she used the now-ubiquitous saying “fake it til you make it!”

It’s time for this saying to be officially and permanently retired!  When we lovingly advise each other or ourselves to “fake it til you make it” we are, inadvertently, reinforcing a negative internal dialog. Although designed to send the positive, uplifting message of “just take action until you gain confidence and competence,” this phrase includes a subtle, not-very-empowering message that needs examination.  I understand telling ourselves to “fake it” allows us to move forward even when we may not yet believe in ourselves. I also understand the dynamic that occurs when we take an action, change our nonverbal pose, smile even if we don’t feel like it, etc. (our brain “believes” us, thus we begin to “make it”) I just don’t think we should label it as “faking.” Like I said, it’s subtle, but language is powerful.

We have all heard of (and likely experienced) impostor syndrome – that dreaded, sometimes pervasive feeling of being a fraud, of not really earning our accomplishments, of having gotten lucky somehow, of not really belonging where we are. Surprisingly prevalent in high achievers, feeling like an impostor means you haven’t yet internalized confidence that your skills, talents and contributions are real and that your achievements are a true reflection of your abilities.  You worry you’ll be discovered as a fake!

Imagine a situation that many have faced – you have been asked to make a high stakes presentation to a group of important stakeholders – you feel underprepared and nervous, you don’t know if you can do it – why were you selected? Surely you are not the person who should be giving this presentation… Nonetheless, you follow the advice to “fake it til you make it” and you stride into the room, hold your head high, project your voice, and you fake it – and you survive! Wow, faking it works!

Wait, wait, wait (insert sound of screeching tires!) This is a WRONG message that indirectly reinforces the awful sense of being an impostor.  What you just did was not fake – you DID IT!  You are not fake, that wasn’t a false experience – the only thing false was your belief that you couldn’t handle it or that you shouldn’t have been there! You were capable enough to “fake it” which means you were capable enough to do it and that is real!

The idea that you are faking it has almost nothing to do with your actual capacity and everything to do with your internal emotional experience which is based on negative self-talk, fear of being “discovered” or even shame about if you really “deserve” your success. Recognizing this internal landscape is important and attending to your emotional response can help you understand why you feel fearful, anxious or otherwise like an impostor. Get in touch with that inner dialog (before or after the presentation – not during!) then you can learn to interrupt and change those false beliefs.  You are not alone in fearing that you are not enough, but telling yourself that you “faked it” only reinforces the foundational belief that you aren’t actually capable- that your accomplishments are somehow not a real reflection of your ability. You accomplished the task, yet the message you tell yourself is that it was “fake!”  NO, NO, NO it wasn’t – it was you and you did it! Practice compassion for yourself when you are fearful, yet remember to give yourself full credit for what you accomplish.

Next time you fear being an impostor, tell yourself this instead: “just take action until you gain confidence and competence,” then courageously take the action despite the fear or lack of confidence so you will move toward “making it.” And remember: you do belong, you are ready, you do have what it takes – there’s nothing fake about it!

Kristen Fragnoli February 19, 2018

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