Self-Signaling, or Why “Fake It ‘Til You Make It” Is Actually Good Advice

a chalk drawing of a stick figure going up a set of stairs
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

-Kurt Vonnegut

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Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.

Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there. If such conduct does not make you soon cheerful, nothing else on that occasion can. So to feel brave, act as if we were brave, use all our will to that end, and a courage-fit will very likely replace the fit of fear.

-William James

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

“Fake it ’til you make it.” It is advice I’ve heard many times. And for many, many years I thought it was a load of hooey. How will faking anything help? I wondered. I will know the difference. I can’t pass off a fake as the real thingnot to myself.

So I resisted the practice, out of stubbornness and out of the belief that it would never work. Later, I found myself trying out the advice but half-heartedly. Faking it and if it didn’t work out instantly (i.e., I didn’t “make it”), swiftly abandoning it.

I had many ways that I wanted to change and improve myself. I wanted to improve my personal attitude, sure, but also ambitions that were professional achievements or interpersonal goals.

Trouble was that there was a wide gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. Even simply building one’s skills didn’t seem to do the trick. I often found myself paralyzed, on the edge of meeting my goals, but unable to take that final step. I waited at the edge of open doors a bit like a cat who had begged to be let out but now wouldn’t step out the door.

I was already there. Ready. Capable of making it. But because of impostor syndrome, I felt like a fake.

And it was at this point that “fake it ’til you make it” started to make a helluva lot of sense.

Self-Signaling

Like a lot of things, when it comes to telling ourselves who we are (and who we can easily become), our actions speak louder than words.

As one team of researchers put it, “actions provide a signal to ourselves, that is, actions are self-signaling.”

When you actually do something, you’re sending yourself a strong message about what kind of person you are.

It’s why the advice “fake it until you make it” can be so impactful. By going through the motions, you’re providing yourself strong evidence that you are that kind of person.

And actually doing the thing has a stronger impact than any vision board or sessions of thinking positively or telling yourself that you want to be something one day ever could.

If you actually do the thing, when you go through the motions, you eventually come much closer to becoming the thing, regardless of what stories you are telling yourself.  Whether you feel like the real deal or not beforehand or for a while after you start doing it.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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