It was the great William Shakespeare who famously proclaimed: All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
Surely, he wasn’t far from the truth, as we all have had to play a role sometimes—to smile when we don’t quite want to, to hide our true feelings, or to show assertion we don’t feel.
But is such a behaviour necessarily right?
And why do we do it anyway if it has a non-authentic ring to it?
Few centuries after Shakespeare, in the 1960s, Prof. Albert Mehrabian from the University of California, Los Angeles, came up with the widely-quoted “Mehrabian formula:” 55/38/7. That is, of all the non-verbal messages we convey to others, 55% relate to body language and facial expressions, 38% to tone of voice and 5% to the actual words that we say. Other research estimates the effect of body language to be 4.3 times greater than that of verbal cues.
The exactness of the numbers is still debatable with scientists, but the message is clear: non-verbal communication matters. Quite a lot, in fact.
And especially in the context of confidence.
It’s more than just the impressions we leave with others—everything from our faces and clothes, gestures, posture, eye contact, handshake, tone of voice, or proximity to others, tell the story of our personality. That is, how we act is an expression and an extension of our characters.
But then, if all this is true, and what we show on the outside should be reflective of our personalities, how did the idea of “faking it” ever become such a widely-used advice? What gave it substance to thrive?
It may come as a surprise (It certainly did to me when I was doing research for this piece) that some quite renowned minds have fueled the “fake-it” epidemic:
- It probably all goes back to the late 1800s and Charles Darwin, who, in addition to his highly acclaimed Theory of Evolution, also developed an idea now famously known as “The Facial Feedback Hypothesis.” The main concept behind it is rather simple— smiling is not only a result of us feeling happy, but it can actually make us feel better. It’s not the effect but the cause of positive sensations. Even if we are forced to smile, he believed, we will still have more pleasant experiences than if we didn’t. That is—the theory implies by extension—acting confident may bring us the highly-desirable inner feeling of self-assurance.
- Few centuries later, a Harvard professor of psychology gave a speech which was largely based on the same premise. There is barely anyone I know who hasn’t heard of or watched the 2012 Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, named “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” It’s been seen by an astonishing 43.5 million viewers. We can gain confidence, she asserted, by adopting certain “power poses,” or by expanding ourselves. All that—and for only two minutes at a time. “Our bodies change our minds,” as she simply put it. Easy enough to practice, and yet—it’s quite impressive that after mere two minutes we can potentially turn into Superman.
- In recent years, much research has also gone into observing children during their pretend-play games. Studies have come to a rather intriguing conclusion—make-believe is not only about entertainment or acting out what we want to become when we grow up. It has many great benefits, such as improved linguistic abilities, enhanced problem-solving, creativity, and better abstract thinking. We can also learn how to better connect with our peers and to relate to different types of people. Indirectly, observing ourselves and others in the play, teaches us lots about being more adaptive, friendly and confident in the outcome of the game. “Acting” as someone else—child psychologists claim— can broaden our mind-sets and horizons in many good ways.
- Gretchen Rubin, in her best-selling book “The Happiness Project” talks about the “act-the-way-I-want-to-feel” principle. “By acting as if you feel a certain way,” she writes, “you induce that emotion in yourself. If I feel shy, I act friendly. If I feel irritated, I act lovingly. This is much harder to do than it sounds, but it’s uncannily effective.” Being pleasant and polite with others, for instance, even if we don’t feel it now, can bring a positive inner emotion at a later point. Therefore, if we want to be liked, accepted and have confidence, we should act “as if.” Feelings will follow the behavior.
- The practice of “creative visualisation” is another argument to consider. The widely-successful book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne proclaims this mental exercise as one of the requisites for success. It’s an inspiring but also intuitive idea—that is, what we can’t see in our minds, ultimately, we won’t be able to materialise in the real world. We must believe we will achieve our dreams, of course, but even more—in order to bring them to life, we need to act as if we already have.
Taking into account the above compelling points, it’s perhaps possible to accept that “faking it”—especially when it comes to confidence—isn’t that distant from the need to “act out of character” or to “step it up a notch” when needed. We all do it for different reasons— be it to accomplish a goal, to support a friend, or to motivate others.
And that’s ok.
But engage with caution.
“Surface acting,” as psychologists call it, or forging emotions and behaviours, is mentally exhausting and often puts a strain on our bodies too, studies tell us. Suppressing our true feelings bears the risks of eventually escalating them. A study from Michigan State University asked customer service employees to fake smiles while working. They reportedly felt worse, experienced work withdrawal and their productivity decreased.
And although “faking it” may produce some temporary benefits, it’s never sustainable. Nor it’s a long-term solution to becoming confident. It’s simply a way of masking a deeper problem. Acting confident is not going to make you confident.
Ultimately, if what we are trying to project on the outside doesn’t resonate with how we feel on the inside, a clash is imminent. Our act will eventually be called out.
Indisputably, embracing a powerful body language is pivotal to confidence-building.
We do have to look the part. We do have to play along sometimes.
But what I’m accentuating is that once we start believing that we are truly worth it, we won’t have to fake confidence ever again.
Self-assurance will be part of our personalities and it will show—in our eyes, in every word and gesture.
And the best part?
We will simply play ourselves—no extra efforts or fake-acting needed.
It’s so very liberating—trust me, I’ve been there, I know.
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