“Fake it till you make it” is a self empowerment saying that you may have heard. Such clichés are the backbone of self-help, personal development, and pop psychology. The world of psychotherapy is often at odds with the self-help and personal development movements. Affirmations like “I am going to fake it till I make it,” are considered simplistic, optimistic, and irrelevant. Psychotherapy prides itself on empirical evidence and research based practices. Too bad, because expressions like this one known only can work, but have been espoused for centuries by some of the giants in the fields of philosophy and psychology.
The phrase,”Fake it till you make it,” is very similar to the idea of Aristotle that to be virtuous one must act as a virtuous person would act. He was wise enough to know that acting as if you were something could make you that something. While Aristotle probably never conducted any research studies, he was acutely aware of the connection between mind and body, and the idea that a change in our physiology can quickly lead to a change in our emotional states.
Early in the 20th century pioneering psychologist, William James, stated, “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” James was interested in the role that physiology plays and how one feels emotionally. He proposed that we feel as we do because of how we act, more so than how we think. To James, it was the actions that create the feelings, not vice versa. He argued that if you act as if you are what you want to be, then it’s only a matter of time until you become that.
In the 1920s, a disciple of Sigmund Freud named Alfred Adler, developed a therapeutic technique which he called “acting as if,” his variation of the fake it till you make it strategy. He believed it to be valuable because it provided his clients the opportunity to practice alternative behaviors to some of the dysfunctional things that they would doing outside the counseling session. His acting as if strategy is frequently used therapeutically where it is known as “role play.” Role-play works well because it opens the mind to other possible behaviors and problem solving strategies. In the world of psychotherapy Adlerian techniques are often used in what is called Brief Solution Focused Psychotherapy, where the origins of negative behaviors are not important and the therapy focuses on fixing things.
In the 1960s, psychotherapist William Glasser developed an approach to psychotherapy which he called Reality Therapy. Glasser relied heavily upon the mind-body link. He argued that emotional states, such as depression, could be changed quickly through a fake it till you make it, acting as if strategy. In his discussions with clients he would use language to begin his therapeutic intervention. He would say you are not “depressed,” but you are “depressing,” meaning that you are acting as a depressed person acts, and are therefore making the problem worse. Much of his brief therapeutic interventions focus on action, movement, and physiological changes to begin the process of dealing with emotional states such as anxiety and depression. His basic message was to change the states, and stop embracing behaviors that are associated with these states.
In athletics and performance arts the expression “practice makes perfect” is well-known. Practice for an athlete, performing artist, or musician, is nothing more than a fake it till you make it or acting as if strategy. No one questions the value of athletic practice or daily practice for a musician. If you think about it, this is fake it till you make it in action.
For a few years in the 1990s I worked part time on a locked psychiatric hospital unit. I noticed that patients responded to the structure and imposed routines of the unit, such as a bedtime curfew, a specific time to get out of bed, mandatory attendance at group, mealtimes at a specific time and so on. Patients got better due to positive behaviors more than any other part of the treatment. Structure, behavior, and routines are the best ways to create positive change. Conscientious use of fake it till you make it, is one of the best ways to impose positive, goal directed behavior.
So there you have it. Fake it till you make it is not just some pop psychology, Stuart Smalley, B. S. strategy. Some of the giants of philosophy and psychology were aware of its benefits as a powerful method for human change and improve performance. Now you are as well.
“You must be the person you never had the courage to be. Gradually, you will discover that you are that person, but until you can see this clearly, you must pretend and invent.”-Paulo Coelho
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