Fake It Till You Make It?
I’m walking through the crowded hallway in my high school, past banks of steel gray lockers, my low heels clicking on the tan linoleum floor. Thin rays of sun peak in the windowed doors at the far end, and a few four-foot fluorescent bulbs spaced every eight feet provide dim artificial light. My maxi-skirt, which I had sewn myself, swishes against my slender legs. Click, click, swish, swish. Chatter and laughter surround me, but I’m not part of it. I’m lost in my own thoughts, heading to my English class, when the bell rings and I pick up the pace. I reach for the door at the same time as a classmate. “Smile,” he commands. Startled, I turn up the corners of my mouth, and give him a quick grin, although it is the last thing I feel like doing. But by age 15, I was well-trained in the art of positivity. Act like you are happy, even when you do not feel happy, and voila, it will be true. Or will it?
For the past 50 years or more, the New Age movement in the United States has told us that in order to feel happy we only have to change our thoughts. And what better way to do that than pretend to be happy. Fake it till you make it. Put a smile on your face, even in times of hardship or sorrow. But has this led us to really be happier? I would argue that for most people, it has not. In the past thirty years the incidence for depression and suicide have continued to climb.
The problem with Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It is that it basically tells us that some of our emotions, especially the ones we think of as negative, are unacceptable. Instead of acknowledging that you feel sad, fearful or angry and then letting yourself feel what you feel, you are encouraged to put a smile on your face. Afterall, being productive and accomplishing things is what is most important. Negative emotions disturb others, disrupt our energy, make it more difficult to focus and we become less productive. So the Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It logic implies it is better to not let ourselves feel these emotions, and even as quite young children we learn to shut them down quickly and paste the smile back on our face. It becomes so automatic that most of us are unaware we are doing it.
Depending on your gender and family background, which of these emotions is unacceptable varies. Boys are most often taught that fear and sadness are taboo. Girls are more likely to learn that sadness is OK, but anger is not. But regardless of our gender, we all have the whole gamut of emotions. Any emotion that is denied or repressed leads not only to depression and other difficult moods, but to physical illness too.
Matt Kahn, a modern spiritual teacher, says Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It is an out-dated spiritual paradigm. When you pretend to feel other than how you actually feel, you are shutting down your own heart, your innocence. When you do this, you are giving yourself the message that certain parts of yourself are bad or unacceptable.
I am now many decades beyond that 15-year-old girl walking down the hall, but I am still un-learning those early Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It lessons. My lifetime struggle with depression was linked to that pasted-on phony smile, and as I’ve healed I’ve found that the journey to wholeness involves feeling every emotion, as it arises. Accept the fear, the anger, the sadness. If I truly want to be happy and return to my Buddha nature, which is loving, joyous and peaceful, I must give myself time and space to cry, rage or just sit.
My book, “Buen Viaje: A Physician’s Journey to Healing and Wholeness,” is about this. Learning how to feel my emotions, and as a result becoming a more whole, authentic person. You can get the book now on Amazon.
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