More than any other unsolicited mental health advice I’ve received over the course of my life — even more than “You should try yoga!” — is the admonishment to “fake it till you make it.” I always understood what the advice-giver meant; there is scientifically-backed proof that acting like you’re happy will make you less sad, and I know from experience that putting on a brave face really could turn a bad day around.
Still, I hesitate to offer that same advice to others without a heaping spoonful of salt. While I’ve found a lot of empowerment and success in “faking it,” I am also the sort of person who always doubts herself, right down to the validity of my emotions. Sometimes faking it can feel like yet another shame-based attempt to conceal my mental illness. It’s a concept that has more layers than its slogan-y cadence would imply.
Taken to its extreme, “fake it till you make it” is what trauma survivors call “dissociation.” Though distant cousins, these two behaviors share a common goal: survival.
Dissociating from memories or stressful experiences is often the only option left when it comes to surviving trauma, especially in cases of complex PTSD, where people have experienced “chronic trauma that continues or repeats for months or years at a time.” In this case, “fake it till you make it” means “tell yourself the bad thing isn’t happening to survive the bad thing that is definitely happening.”
This is markedly different from smiling when you’re sad, but it’s all too easy to confuse the two when grappling with significant mental health problems. I know that I’ve personally faced a lot of challenges navigating the murky waters of putting on a face to get through the day and wiping myself clean of inconvenient emotions. Plus, it’s pretty hard to hide something debilitating when it’s, you know, debilitating you.
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The trick is being mindful. (Which, again, is super hard to do in the throes of illness, and if that’s where you’re at right now, your only homework is to stay alive. Come back to this when you feel better equipped and have had some time to rest and heal. Check out these resources if you’re in need of a little extra support.) To successfully fake it till you make it, you must first know what you feel, why you’re feeling it, and what you’d like to do about it. So let’s start there.
What’s the inconvenient feeling/situation you’re grappling with?
Is it internal or interpersonal? Is it something that’s come up recently or a longterm issue? How does your body feel? What words would you use to describe your feelings? In what ways does this prevent you from living your life as wholly or efficiently as you’d like to? If you feel overwhelmed just thinking about it, try jotting these questions down and answering each with a simple sentence. It might seem silly, but writing your feelings down on the page makes them tangible and better organized.
Now assess. Ask yourself if this situation truly requires you to fake it till you make it.
It would be great if we lived in a world where everyone got to be their authentic selves 100% of the time, but for most people, that just isn’t a practical reality. You might need to fake it so you can literally make it; I’m lucky enough to work somewhere that understands the importance of mental health days and therapy appointments, but I still can’t take a month off when my chronic anxiety rears its ugly head. That’s just not possible — but my anxiety doesn’t know or care about that. It’s going to show up anyway. And because of that, I try to make sure I’m only faking it when I absolutely have to.
For example, say I’m having a bad brain day, but I have plans with friends. I could technically put on a brave face and go out and maybe even have a good time — but do I need to? No, and sometimes I need to save that energy for times when I will need it — because faking it is tough. It’s a lot of work. If I’ll make it without faking it, then there’s no reason to fake anything.
When I come up against an obstacle and determine that I do have to fake it to make it, I try to create bookends of validation around the faking.
For instance, I often have interview calls scheduled far in advance — things I can’t really cancel if I have a panic attack the morning of. It doesn’t help that these interviews sometimes cause said panic attack. What I can do, though, is take a long hot shower before I make the call. I can promise myself that for 15 minutes, I can totally go to pieces. I can cry and wail, or I can sit on the floor of the shower in stunned silence — whatever I’m feeling, I get to do it. And then I wash it down the drain. I get dressed, and I hop on the call, and you best believe I put on my very best Mormon Aunt Trying To Sell You Tupperware voice and ask intriguing questions and lose myself in the interview. When I hang up the phone, I also hang up the “faking.” Because I have made it.
That’s the key: being able to turn the faking off and on as it is useful to you — and no more than that. Any more than that, and it’s easy to fall into a pattern of faking things just to make people happy or more comfortable. No one’s comfort is more important than your wellbeing. It's called "fake it till you make it" for a reason.