Vivian Manning-Schaffel is a multifaceted storyteller whose work has been featured in The Cut, NBC News Better, Time Out New York, Medium, and The Week. Follow her on Twitter @soapboxdirty.
“Fake it till you make it” — we’ve all likely heard the phrase muttered a time or two when it comes to getting through a tough personal or professional moment. We’ve maybe even used it with ourselves as a form of reassurance when we aren’t feeling confident in our abilities. In any case, the phrase is often used to convey acting as if you have more to offer than you do.
When used literally, the term can obviously become problematic, especially if you’re biting off way more than you can chew professionally, but doubly so if someone is a total impostor trying to lie or cheat their way to success, like, say, Anna Delvey, who defrauded countless victims out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to pose as a German heiress infiltrating the New York City elite. Perhaps that’s why Alan Ibbotson, a leadership coach, founder of the Trampoline Group, and host of the YouTube video series “Wisdom You Didn’t Ask For,” would love nothing more than to bury the phrase completely. “It literally means you can’t do it or be it, and you are pretending,” he puts it plainly. “For some, they are signing up to be a fake and a phony, a liar and a cheat, someone who isn’t concerned with what others think or even with being authentic in their success — they just want to get away with it, operating on the hope that eventually they’ll make it.”
But not everyone is out there trying to get ahead by nefarious means. Many of us have found ourselves in new roles and lacking certain experience that can only come with doing the job, like launching a new business or suddenly becoming the manager of 25 people. Sure, some expertise is required, but in such instances, there will always be a learning curve that can only come with throwing oneself into the deep end, figuring some of it out along the way, and going through the necessary motions to build confidence in a new position.
And then there’s a third category of faking it till you make it: the dreaded impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is loosely defined as the internal experience some, especially at high levels, have of believing that they are not as competent as others perceive them to be. Ibbotson refers to the “fake it till you make it” narrative as “literally the birthplace of impostor syndrome.” He does, however, offer this distinction: “I think someone suffering from impostor syndrome is someone who ultimately wants to succeed and has anxiety about whether they are good enough. They care about authentic success and will likely be doing what they can to learn and grow into the challenge until they feel comfortable.”
Rheeda Walker, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, researcher, professor at the University of Houston, and the author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health, says competent people can develop impostor syndrome by internalizing societal messages of “less than,” which only compounds impostor syndrome further. “With women and people who are members of certain racial-ethnic minority groups, we see it more often because society says, ‘We really don’t expect much from you. We don’t even think you have the capacity.’ My parents always said I was going to have to work twice as hard to get half as far — and I wasn’t the only Black girl who was told this. It was just part of the cultural narrative of what we have to do in order to achieve success,” she says.
No matter how you’re faking it to make it, though, what “make it” actually means is ultimately highly subjective. “Very few of us actually stop to identify exactly how we’ll know when we’ve made it,” says Barbara Barna Abel, the multimedia coach and adviser of Abel Intermedia and the host of the Camera Ready & Abel podcast. “It’s a vague idea in the future, and our brains have no idea where we’re actually going, so we’re on a ‘faking it’ hamster wheel going as fast as we can to avoid being found out.”
Even without swindling others out of hundreds of thousands of dollars like Anna Delvey, many of us, when trapped in the cycle of trying to prove ourselves to ourselves, might start to feel like a fraud for no good reason. In fact, the phrase “fake it till you make it” itself harkens back to the term “self-fulfilling prophecy,” which was coined in 1948 by social psychologist Robert Merton to describe “a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true,” according to The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. In other words, if you say you’re faking it often enough, part of you holds the belief that you are indeed a fake, someone not fit for the opportunity you’re about to step into.
Perhaps, then, faking it till we make it needs a bit of reframing. Here’s how to keep pushing forward — for real — when it feels like faking it may be the only way to win.
Don’t expect too much of yourself from the start
Imagine you’ve just been hired at a new organization in a higher position than you’ve ever held before. Regardless of how prepared you are to step into that boardroom, there’s a first time for everything, and it’s rare for someone to approach their first time at anything exuding total confidence. Give yourself the grace of building up the confidence you need in the role, and allow yourself to sit back and learn from those around you. In this circumstance, though telling yourself you’ll “fake it till you make it” may seem like a means to come out of the gate strong — and indeed there are times when you have to relent to already established processes in order to reach a goal — starting out with the mindset of being fake is still a form of negative self-speak that could potentially be limiting and damaging to confidence and competence in the long run, says Ibbotson.
Shift the narrative
To break the negative self-speak cycle that can hold you hostage, it helps to shift your own narrative, says Walker. “From a psychological perspective, there’s a tremendous amount of empirical support with regard to how people think about things and how that impacts what they do and how they feel,” she explains. “If you’re telling yourself secretly, ‘I don’t deserve to be here. I’m not capable or competent,’ that’s going to affect behaviors. People are going to be anxious and worn out and sometimes depressed because they don’t think the reward that they’re getting matches the behavior and work they’re putting in. We have to interrupt the cycle and replace those maladaptive thoughts with adaptive thoughts and positive messages that make sense for us. Say things like ‘I’m confident. I’m doing the best that I can. I deserve to be here,’ because if you don’t, you’re kind of setting yourself up to miss out on the success that you actually deserve.”
Consider why you feel like you’re faking it — then recognize when you’re not
Barna Abel says developing an awareness and consciousness of why you feel like you’re faking it is a great first step. “As soon as you give it a name and acknowledge it, it loses its power,” she says. “Next, knowing that these feelings are universal helps you to understand you’re not alone. Then you set the intention of challenging yourself to move through it, sit with your fear, and do the thing anyway. People will come to me when they’re asked to do something outside of their comfort zone. Confidence is an inside job, right? It comes from within. There are a lot of exercises where you can explore tapping into this. You just have to tell your brain where it’s going.” Once you get there, the next step is recognizing that you’re no longer in the perfunctory learning stage; now you can own the expertise you’ve picked up and lead with it on future goals and projects.
Before you can make it, you have to believe it
When trying to build and maintain the conviction you need to succeed, instead of faking it till you make it, Barna Abel says she prefers social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s concept: “Fake it till you believe it,” which speaks to how our neuropathways adapt to certain concepts over time through repetition. “In my opinion, this outlook is a more positive, productive, and beneficial version of ‘fake it till you make it,’” she explains. “It takes a long time — months or years — for us to believe in ourselves. The message has to become internalized and felt in your subconscious.”
Rather than faking it, try winging it
Ibbotson extols the virtues of winging it over faking it. “There’s only so much preparation that you can do for anything. Winging it is a skill set that refers to the ability to assess your situation and judge it accurately,” he says. “It’s about what it means to be open to learning how instead of pretending to be. It’s about how creatively, on the fly, you’re able to pull your resources together to find a solution to something or improvise. It’s about developing the level of confidence you need to trust the culmination of all you’ve learned over the years, step into the unknown, and trust that it will work out. You’ve got to have faith in yourself.”
Separate your thoughts from your feelings
Building faith in oneself can come with an understandable amount of anxiety, so Ibbotson advises his coaching clients to grab a pen and paper, draw a line down the middle, and jot down their thoughts on one side and their feelings on the other. “The idea is to cultivate emotional self-awareness and understand why you’re feeling the way you are and how it affects you so you can better act on the fly,” he advises. “It helps you to get out of the emotional tsunami that is your fear, accept it as a normal part of what’s happening to you at the time, and detach a little from your expectations of the end result. If you’re open-minded about what an end result looks like, you’ll be able to roll with things more nimbly.”
In the end, avoid “compare and despair”
Comparing yourself with others, especially via social media, is another unnecessary distraction from embracing your own capabilities on your way to success, says Walker. “We have to first accept that everyone feels like they don’t belong or they’re a fraud sometimes, and then focus on the fact that we have worked hard, regardless of what people say,” Walker says in regard to establishing your motivations for getting ahead. “It’s the hero’s journey from every popular narrative: They figure out who they are, tap into what makes them special, unique, and capable, then they are able to move on with whatever the mountain of the task is.”