Chances are you’ve heard the old aphorism “fake it ‘till you make it,” meant to suggest that by imitating confidence, competence, and/or an optimistic point of view, you can imbue your life with those qualities for really real—usually in work, but also in relationships, or even with regard to your moods.

In other words, dressing for success can take many forms. Now, while there is of course truth to this philosophy of demonstrated confidence, it’s really only true to a limit. While summoning up whatever shows of confidence you may have lurking within you can very effectively counter common feelings of “imposter syndrome” (when you wrongly doubt your accomplishments and your worth), abusing the approach isn’t good for anyone. 

A common mistake: false ‘creds’

While admitting you don’t have the credentials or experience needed to achieve an important task (at work, or at a job interview, for instance) can feel embarrassing, lying about your experience, only to fail badly, is way worse. 

For example, if you said in an interview that you’re very experienced with Adobe Suite, the truth is bound to come out if your first assignment should revolve around graphic design. No one needs that kind of stress—don’t put yourself through it.

As Kimberly White, senior director of operations at tech rental management company Vacasa puts it, “Contrived confidence is artificial and easy to spot, and I’ve found that authenticity and transparency earn you greater respect, anyway. Say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out,’ and you’ll build a stronger relationship than if you spin an answer out of buzzwords and wishful thinking.” 

How to fake it the right way

Faking it until you make it only works when you correctly identify something within yourself that’s holding you back—like recognizing when you’re socially awkward, for instance, and could make more headway professionally by forcing yourself to initiate conversation at workplace functions.

Behaving like the person you want to be is about actually changing the ways you think and feel. If, on the other hand, your focus is to prove yourself to others on a superficial level with clothing or status symbols, research shows that this tends to backfire, since when we use surface rather than below-the surface indicators of self-worth, we just end up dwelling more on our failings.

Perhaps counterintuitively, faking it the right way isn’t actually about being fake. It’s about changing your behavior and trusting that your feelings will follow suite. The only prerequisite here is being interested in changing yourself rather than simply trying to change how others see you.

Now that you’ve got the gist of it, here are a few tried and true strategies for successful “faking.”

  • Smile. This isn’t about some creepy guy on the street telling you to smile when you’d really rather not. Research actually shows that if you want to boost your mood, forcing a smile works. One study that asked participants to either smile or frown while judging a series of images found people had a more positive reaction when smiling, and that these effects lasted for roughly 4 minutes. Practice makes perfect, they say.
  • Strike a pose. In her famous 2012 TED talk, Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School social psychologist, shared her discovery that the simple act of striking a powerful posture can affect your internal body chemistry. In her study, she had subjects adopt power stances (with their chest and head lifted and arms on their hips) and meeker stances (hunched over with arms crossed) for two minutes each. Guess what? Those who struck power poses showed a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and a rise in testosterone, a hormone known to increase feelings of dominance and confidence. “Our nonverbals govern how we think and feel about ourselves,” Cuddy said. “Our bodies change our minds.”
  • Don’t underestimate yourself. Many of us have lots of experience in our chosen field, or tons of wonderful qualities to offer a love interest, or endless insight to offer a group or organization we’re part of—yet we feel we don’t have enough to offer, or we feel like imposters. Regardless of what scenario you face, write a list of all your credentials, qualifications, or relevant qualities—be they personal, professional, or otherwise. Don’t stop to think or categorize them. Just write them all down, and then post the list somewhere you’re sure to see it regularly (perhaps while striking a power pose each morning before breakfast). 

So, should I fake it?

Bottom line: while ‘faking it ’til you make it’ has its very practical uses, it is by no means a catch-all remedy, especially when it comes to a lack of palpable and necessary experience.

By all means, incorporate it into your confidence-boosting and mood-enhancing strategies—this alone can vastly alter how you feel and how others perceive you. But draw the line at straight-out lies or fabricated credentials, opting instead for being true and real. People respond best of all to honest humility, anyway. Well—the ones you want to get involved with. Plus, you’ll genuinely like yourself more too, and only good can come from that.  

More helpful articles: