You might convince others if you “fake it ’til you make it” – but you’ll never convince yourself

Doireann Ní Chonghaile examines the shortcomings of a common piece of advice given to those who struggle with self-confidence.

We’ve all heard the advice before –  If you’re lacking in self-confidence, self-esteem, or are plagued with doubts about your own worth, all you need is this one simple trick: pretend to be confident, and eventually everyone, including yourself, will believe it. Fake it ’til you make it. It’s ridiculously easy, too, once you realise that most of the people you interact with will know no better. They have no idea that this person, who’s always smiling, or joking, who seems unshakeable, is not you. It’s like a cheat code for introverts – you can skip actually learning to believe in yourself and go straight to a successful and fulfilling life.

Maybe it works perfectly for some people. Good for them. But “faking it”, as with most things, can be taken too far. Because pretending to be confident when you’re not – which is all the time, for some of us – isn’t self-improvement. You’re not actually making yourself more confident; you’re creating a whole other persona, a character, a facade, who you wear every day like an old shirt you know you should throw out. It’s not pretty, but it does the job.

Until it doesn’t.

It’s not an epiphany, as such – more of a gradual awakening to the fact that your trick isn’t working quite as well as you thought. There were clues, if you’d been able to pick up on them. All those times you made a stupid, sarcastic joke, when you didn’t even find it funny. When you kept dodging personal questions with witty (inane) quips, then wondered what would have been so hard about just answering them. All those times you could have been sincere and personal, and went for proud and impenetrable instead – as if you even had a choice. Gradually, and then all at once, you realise that this person – who everyone thinks is you – is brash, loud, antagonistic. And you don’t like them.

This character, who is empty and insubstantial, forms what you once thought was a suit of armour around you, but is really just a cage.

Imagine you’re an actor, and you’ve been trained to play this one very specific part whenever you’re in a social situation that might make you nervous (which is somewhere between “some” and “most”, generally). It’s an automatic, almost Pavlovian response to feeling terrified and small, so when someone makes an attempt to talk to you properly, it’s not you that answers, it’s the part you’re playing. And they don’t have any answers, because they’re a shallow, one-dimensional character you created to provide what you were lacking, and their only trait is overconfidence. This character, who is empty and insubstantial, forms what you once thought was a suit of armour around you, but is really just a cage. Every day, you lock yourself into that cage, and it’s so, so, frustratingly hard to leave it.

Issues of self-confidence are hardly new or specific to our generation, but they do seem to be exacerbated by social media. We feel under constant pressure to perform to our Facebook friends or our Twitter followers, to be witty and observant and likeable, to rake in likes and retweets, and feel validated. Every tweet, status or email involves deciding how you want (potentially hundreds) of strangers to perceive you, even if you’re just making a point about your favourite TV show. It’s constant, it’s exhausting, and it’s lonely.

Because that person, the one who gets a hundred likes on every status, or has a thousand Twitter followers, is not you, not really. They’re the same character you play when you go to a meeting or a party, only now you have to play them all the time, even inside your own home, the one place you shouldn’t have to act. You’ve been faking it, turning on this other persona for so long, you can’t really remember how to turn it off anymore. It’s like being a method actor, except that filming goes on for your entire life, and viewers only know you as the character you play.

We see ourselves through other peoples’ eyes, and filter our own perception of ourselves through the opinions of those we love and respect. So it’s a little bit shattering to realise that they don’t even know you, and so, you wonder, can you really claim to know yourself? Which bits of you are actually you, and which bits have you just gotten so used to faking you don’t even know if you can tell anymore? When you strip away what you know is fake, do you even like what’s left?

Losing that fight, as shitty as it is, can give you the strength to try something different – like instead of trying to constantly impress others, trying to impress yourself.

The plus side (if you can call it that) to realising the awful distance between who you think you are, and who others think you are, is this: After a while, after plenty of self-loathing, self-doubt, and anger at yourself for letting this happen, you realise that you have almost nothing left to lose. Because, at that moment, no-one could possibly think as little of you as you think of yourself, and a perverse kind of self-confidence grows out of that realisation. You’ve tried faking it, and that got you hyperventilating while curled in the foetal position at the bottom of your bed. Losing that fight, as shitty as it is, can give you the strength to try something different – like instead of trying to constantly impress others, trying to impress yourself. It sounds inane and cheesy, but think about it like this: If you were asked to sign a lifetime contract to live with someone you hated, you’d think that was insane, right? But you have to live with yourself – both the self you know and the one you present to the outside world – forever, so you should probably make some effort to get along.

Faking self-confidence doesn’t get you anywhere good, even if it seems like the only option available to you for getting through stressful situations. But whether it’s a successful strategy depends on what your own idea of “making it” is. If you’re happy to have to pretend all the time, potentially for the rest of your life; if it doesn’t bother you that it means keeping most people at an arm’s length, or that their perception of you is completely skewed, then great. You’ve made it. But if you’d rather be able to walk out your front door every day without having to put on a virtual suit of armour, and not feel the need to perform for anyone, including yourself; if you’d like to be able to look at all your decisions and say “Yes, that was me. I did that because that was what I wanted.” – then this is not for you.

Can you do those things? Can you show the world who you are, and not be ashamed of it?

Then congratulations, you’ve made it.