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Smile: Fake It Until You Make It

5 min read

I’ve received this ol’ chestnut of advice from many people, complete strangers to therapists. Personally, I’ve found it not all that useful, but we really need to break the popular phrase down to understand if it can work for us.

Making It

So let’s look at the end goal first. What does “make it” mean to us? This will be different for everyone, but we rarely take the time to examine our feelings. When a therapist used the phrase she was specifically talking about my mental state. When depression and anxiety are running the Chris Show, my goal is to take over as director. My personal goal is to be “normal.” What is “normal?” This is not a specific goal. Well, after a number of groups, psychiatry appointments, and self-help books I understand that I am normal. Humans are imperfect.

Okay, what if my goal is to not be carried away by depression and anxiety?Again, this isn’t really specific. Perhaps “make it” is finding balance? Do you see my issue here? “Fake it until you make it” didn’t work for me because I have too many unanswered questions. I cannot clearly define what making it would be when it comes to my mental health.

Faking It With A Smile

The first part of the phrase, “fake it,” was useless as well. I knew I was a sham. The language is poorly chosen in my case, my negative core beliefs attach to it which makes the exercise have the opposite effect. There’s a number of studies that have scientifically proven that a smile can alter our brain chemistry and moods. I also find smiles from other people can be contagious as well. Yet, I wasn’t receiving these benefits because I wasn’t smiling.

I spent a day smiling every time I felt insecure, I felt anxiety, or had negative thoughts. By the end of the day, I was in physical pain. I had a headache too. After trying this out in the morning, I think my forgiving, positive smile turned into a grimace. The smile wasn’t genuine and I paid for that.

Smiles do work when you mean them. If not, well you look scarier than a purple blob trying to sell your kids burgers.


Why do folks run amok with this gem of a phrase if it doesn’t work? It seems like bad advice from my personal perspective, at least when it comes to mental health. Can you fake a new job until you figure it out? Perhaps, yes. (Of course, as someone with anxiety, I feel certain that faking it would backfire on me.) Certainly, there must be some traction for this phrase to have made it this far into our language.

William James was a Victorian philosopher and American psychologist who believed that actions guide our emotions, not the other way around. In other words, if you want to be happy, laugh. This “act as if” principle, as it is sometimes called, has been popular for many years. Psychologists and motivational speakers are all about this idea. However, as I shared my personal experiment above, we must clearly define what it is that we are trying to achieve. I’d argue that if you can figure out your specific goal, you won’t be faking it at all. For example, the theory of acting as if says if an introvert wants to be more social they should imagine the behavior of a friend who is extroverted and mimic them. If the introvert does this a few times successfully, they’re no longer faking it. Fear prevents us from trying things we are uncomfortable with, but when we succeed the fear quickly loses power over us.

The challenge isn’t in faking it, or making it. Sitting down to examine yourself, to feel and sit with those thoughts and emotions about what you believe you are lacking is the hard part. To observe those difficult emotions as they run amok in my body without getting caught up in the story of why I feel insecure or the narrative of what “could” happen seems to be a better skill than faking it.

By the way, the word amok, or amuck, was used in the days of opium dens. It comes from the the Malay word “amoq,” meaning “a state of murderous frenzy.” Europeans who got high on opium and ran into the street killing people with a squiggly looking dagger were said to have run amok. That dagger is called a kris. There you go, I’ve killed my dreams, and yours, of “faking it until you make it.” What a coincidence, my name is Chris. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some soul searching to do.