March 1, 2013 7:40 pm

Should we fake it till we make it?

The true insight at the heart of imposter syndrome is that we often cannot be sure we really are good at what we do

The Shrink

An illustration of a man at the dentist©Laura Carlin

The next time you’re feeling down, try holding a pencil between your teeth. By mimicking a smile, this is supposed to promote a happy mood. And if your confidence wavers, try practising a “power pose”. This apparently not only affects outcomes in job interviews, it can also mould our own perception of ourselves. Echoing the theories of William James, these research results suggest that you just need to make the right physical movements and your feelings will follow.

Another version of “faking it till we make it” – in this case changing our character by changing how we act – has a truly ancient pedigree, going back to Aristotle. He called it habituation and advised that just as we become lyre players by playing the lyre, we become brave by behaving bravely and so on.

A common response to all this is that it seems – well, fake. You’re not “being yourself”. You’re pretending to be someone you’re not. But this is not really a problem. There isn’t only one way to be yourself. We all evolve over time and can train ourselves to respond differently to things. When we go against the grain, such changes are bound to feel artificial at first.

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A more troubling issue is self-deception. If you’re looking for love, you might have come across the advice that acting as if you find someone attractive makes you more likely to fall in love with them. But you might equally end up convincing yourself that there is something between you when there isn’t, and this will only create problems in the long run. Trying to behave in ways that are too disconnected from reality is often not sustainable.

“Faking it” requires effort, and so we need to pick our battles, the ones that are worth it. We can’t and shouldn’t fake what is fundamentally untrue but we can nudge ourselves in a certain direction, choosing manageable changes that matter – training ourselves to be more generous, more adventurous, more persistent. So by all means smile to make yourself happy but don’t forget that real contentment is a little more complicated.

The Sage

Like many, I suffer from a mild form of imposter syndrome: the persistent or recurring feeling that one day I will be exposed as an incompetent fraud. I say “suffer” but actually I think some kind of fear of fakery is entirely healthy and appropriate. More often than not, people are where they are by a combination of talent and hard work, aided by a dash of luck and chutzpah. How can we be sure that in our own cases, what ought to be the dashes are not in fact the principal ingredients?

The question is less pressing in professions where there are clearly defined sets of skills and qualifications, and anyone who practises without them is a charlatan. But having the right certificate doesn’t always settle it. You can be, say, a trained psychoanalyst, and still doubt either your own skills or whether therapy really helps people in the first place. Quackery doesn’t cease to be quackery if it acquires a professional association and accredited diplomas.

In many spheres, however, there is no proof of competence other than in results. Many of the best writers, journalists, artists, musicians, cooks, milliners and so on had little or no formal training. What the “fake it to make it” philosophy gets right is that you can study and go on courses if you wish, but ultimately you learn by doing. Everyone starts out as a novice. Done in the right spirit, this kind of “have a go” mentality isn’t faking at all. Faking is pretending to be what you have yet to become, not trying to become what you want to be.

The true insight at the heart of imposter syndrome is that we often cannot be sure we really are good at what we do – there is always more to learn. So we should worry less about whether we’ve arrived and more about continuing the journey. There are incompetent fakes who claim to be good, but there is no fakery in an honest attempt to make it as best we can.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England

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