Fake It Till You Make It

My commitment to my profession requires that I participate in ongoing coach training to receive Continuing Education Units. I recently attended a program on affirmations that was clever and well done, but focused exclusively on language as a vehicle for personal change. In my assessment, that is insufficient; for words that are not grounded in action change little.

We Must Engage the Mind-Body Connection

The Mind-Body connection is this: What you think affects how you feel, and those emotions affect your body – your non-verbal language like posture and facial expression, the actions you take, the words that come out of your mouth, how you walk, talk, and even your pulse rate and how you breathe.

While sometimes wonderful things happen during a coaching conversation, the fact is that most coaching occurs betweenconversations as clients process and expand the ideas generated from the conversation. We can together create a new idea, feeling, or posture during a coaching discussion, but merely talking about it and trying it once does nothing.

It is only through repetition that a new habit can form, a new thinking can overwrite an old “tape recording,” or a new response can replace an old instinctive emotional reaction.

Here’s a common clip from a conversation:

“Jim, this is very UNnatural for me. It’s not comfortable.”

“That’s not unusual. Your system wants to go back the thinking/feeling/actions that it’s always known, even if that old pattern was unproductive.”

“But…it feels really fake for me to talk/behave this way.”

“Have you ever faked behavior before? Has there ever been a time when you imitated someone or put on a false face just to ‘fit in’ or be in compliance with what was required?”

Often, there’s a realization here. We’ve all had the Human experience of intentionally modifying our behavior to fit in or to avoid a consequence. When we say, “This is who I am,” we are forgetting that at some past time the behavior/reaction that is now habit was, in fact, something we had to fake until we got it “right.”

That’s why we call this ‘fake it till you make it.’ You have to practice, practice, practice a new thinking or behavior many times to overlay that OLD thinking or behavior pattern.

It Takes Many Repetitions

Somatic experts (those who work with the body as a whole system) tell us that it requires a minimum of 100 repetitions of a new action for our bodies to even start to get comfortable with it, and thousands of repetitions before it becomes an unthinking response. And Brain experts tell us that it takes many, many repetitions of a new thought to lay down new neural pathways in the brain.

So is change hard? Yes. AND you’ve done this many times before. How do you think you developed your many habits in the first place?!

Try This For Yourself

Stop for a moment and consider something you want to change in yourself. For example, you may want to:

  • Change a story you tell yourself (aka self-talk)
  • Shift an automatic response you have to certain people or situations
  • Live in a different mood (like calm vs anxiety, or expectation vs sadness)
  • Modify a behavior or posture

Here are a few ideas to help you create a new pattern:

New Thinking
Since you have been thinking

 for many years, the neural pathways in your brain are like deep channels. To overwrite them, take a deliberate and consistent approach to working with a new thought or new story.

  • Write it down. Give it life on paper. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, says he used this technique for years to shift his self-identity from corporate wage-slave to comic strip illustrator. Every day, he wrote down his new thought 15 times. The repetition combined with the physical act of writing (engaging the body), every day, every day, every day, eventually gave him the courage to leave his day job… and we all know the rest. He claims he still uses this tool to help him adopt new thoughts about himself.
  • Sound it out. Say the new thought out loud, every day. Engage your voice and your ears in the process. You might even record it (in your own voice) and listen to that daily. Have you ever saved a really cool voicemail message for a couple of months just so you can listen to it over and again, and experience that little thrill you get when you hear it? So, call and leave yourself a message with your new thought soundtrack, and every time you pick up voicemail you will dig the new path in your brain just a wee bit deeper.
  • Speak it to others. If the thought is something about you, start using it in conversation. It will feel incredibly fake, of course. But remember: that’s not necessarily because it’s untrue, but simply that you’re not used to saying it. After awhile, it will feel more natural, you’ll begin to own it yourself, and eventually it will be embedded in your cells.

New Emotional Body
Every emotion you live in corresponds to different body postures, breathing, and energy. If you want to live in a different mood or emotion start with your body – thus reversing from mind-body to a Body-Mind connection: a different body will cause different emotional responses, which will in turn affect your thoughts.

  • Act like a different mood. Recognize that every mood comes from a different body posture. Stand in front a mirror and notice the way your body looks when you are worried, fearful, sad or frustrated. Shift yourself to embody what you want more of, e.g. calm, confidence, happiness, or patience. Straighten up, open up, uncurl, unfold, or relax your body/posture. Don’t forget to shift your facial expression to match the mood you want to carry.
    Notice how you feel in different postures. (Remember, different may feel uncomfortable at first). Practice that adjusted posture multiple times daily.
    If you are unsure of what mood you are putting out, do the above exercise with a friend who can help you “re-sculpt” your body, facial expression, and breathing.

New Behavior or Posture
You’ve been living in your body for several decades, and you’ve grown comfortable with the way you walk, sit, stand, breathe, and otherwise carry yourself. How you do so is neither good nor bad, it just is. But as long as you behave the way you’ve always behaved, you’ll always get the same outcomes.

  • Increase awareness. For a few days or a week, just make notes on how you show up. How do you normally sit in a meeting? Do you more often lean forward or backward? What expression do you have on your face when you walk around? How do you stand when you are in conversation? What do you do with your hands? Where are your shoulders? And so on… For many people, the simple act of paying attention to their own non-verbals inspires a shift.
    I was working with an executive client on his personal presence, and when I asked the simple question, “how do you normally breathe?” he admitted, “I have no idea!” In order to use his body as a more powerful tool for communication, we had to first improve his self-awareness.
  • Experiment. Try a new way of walking, standing, or sitting that will give off a different non-verbal signal, or that will cause you to feel differently when you do it. E.g. open your chest, drop your shoulders, sit/stand with a tall spine, try a solid stance vs. weight on one foot, put feet flat on floor vs. curled under chair, walk with your head up or a smile on your face. Note which changes create positive reactions in your or others, then select just one to practice until it feels natural.
    My client sought to feel more “grounded” in his communication, and part of his challenge was to drop his energy lower in his body. At one point, we had him lying on the floor of his office, taking deep breaths and noticing how he could evoke a different sense of confidence by breathing into his deep belly versus into his throat.
  • Put on a new outfit. Do you have certain outfits in your closet that make you feel better when you wear them? When you know what image you want to convey to self and others, just put on that “body” like a set of clothes. Maybe it won’t fit as well at first, but you’ll grow into it.
    Finally, my client realized that he typically walked with a stoop, with his shoulders rolled slightly forward. When he put on a “taller body” he found that he actually felt more decisive and in control of situations.

Fake It till it becomes your New Normal

Physical, emotional, and mental are quite intertwined. An intentional shift in any domain will affect all three… so you can come from any direction that works for you, then repeat over and again until you start to notice that new thinking/response no longer feels fake.

Then one day you’ll realize it’s become part of “who you are” when that thinking/response shows up at times of stress and when you’re moving fast.

That’s when you’ll know you’ve made it!


Jim Smith, PCC, is The Executive Happiness Coach®. He is an international speaker, executive and life coach, and author. He provides his clients with inspiration and practical tools to live a happier life and build more positive work cultures. He is the author of Happiness At The Speed of Life: 13 Powerful Strategies for Finding Happiness at Home and On The Job, and has touched the lives of over 10,000 people worldwide through his work on Positive Emotion and Leadership. You can connect with Jim at theexecutivehappinesscoach.com.