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Fake it Till You Make It: Helpful AA Saying or Dangerous Self-Deception?

The catch-phrase “Fake it till you make it,” is often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. In the book, AA to Z; An Addictionary of the 12-Step Culture, this saying is described as a “suggestion often made to newcomers who feel they can’t get the program and will go back to old behavior. The suggestion implies that if the newcomer acts according to the steps and teachings of the program, then the program will begin to work….”

When used as a motivational reminder to “hang in there,” this phrase can help individuals in recovery stay strong during the early days of sobriety. However, some addicts view it as a potential excuse to not fully engage in their sobriety plan. A member of a popular online AA support group posted that, “I always heard the phrase, ‘Fake it till you make it’. So I did. EXCEPT I took it as an excuse to not WORK the program…Looking back, I never really got sober, I just got dry. So, now, as I am EARNESTLY and DESPERATELY seeking sobriety, not just dryness, I realize what that phrase really means.”

When used as a motivational reminder to “hang in there,” this phrase can help individuals in recovery stay strong during the early days of sobriety.

Another senior member of the online group states that, “I wish it could be reworded into something less sarcastic and closer to what you’re actually doing.‘Do it till you get it’ perhaps. It says I’m willing to put one foot in front of the other, work the program, keep coming back, go through the motions– and do that on faith even if I don’t believe it or understand it – and through this work, the belief and understanding will come.” *

Even though belief in the usefulness of the phrase may differ among individuals in recovery, science actually supports a “fake it till you make it” attitude.– Rita MiliosEven though belief in the usefulness of the phrase may differ among individuals in recovery, science actually supports a “fake it till you make it” attitude. Studies show that faking a more positive outlook – pretending to be happy when not (“smiling through the pain”) or “power posing” taking on strong, non-verbal body posture despite not feeling the confidence that the posture would suggest – has the effect of moving us in the direction that we are pretending to experience. Reporting in the journal Psychological Science (Oct. 2010), author D.R. Carney and colleagues concluded that, “power posing increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk.”

They further determined that these changes extended beyond mere thinking and feeling, to impact the study participants’ physiology and subsequent behavior, producing real-world implications. They theorized that participants’ increased feelings of power and more positive outlooks likely resulted from increases in levels of testosterone and decreases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Fake it Till You Make it Tips

So how do you “fake it till you make it” in such a way as to gain the benefits of this attitude, rather than allowing it to become an excuse for sloughing off?

  • Recognize that you are not just “faking it” to pretend and avoid actually doing the work of following through on your sobriety plan. In the real spirit of this motivational prompt, commit to yourself that your “faking it” is to be a temporary situation, necessary only while you are building up confidence and belief in yourself and your sobriety program.
  • Be selective as to where and how you “fake it.” Do not use this attitude to fake everything, everywhere. Instead, do your faking in the context of your program. Fake interest in going to meetings; tell yourself that you really want to be there. Fake interest in what group members are sharing; really listen to the advice and stories being told, especially by those with longevity in the program.
  • Fake commitment (see below). Fake your willingness to take action until the willingness becomes real. The hardest part of changing any persistent, self-defeating habit is getting yourself started–taking action. Motivation, contrary to what many people believe and expect, does not emerge prior to taking action. Motivation follows action; it does not precede it. Hence the Nike commercial, “Just do it!” You have to first “prime the pump” via sheer willpower and commitment, in order to take a first step. Then, as you gain confidence and momentum by building on the first step to take the next step, the flow of motivation kicks in and carries you further forward toward your goal.
  • “See” yourself successful. Use the mental tool of visualization, or imagination, to “program” your mind for the new mental attitude that you are striving to manifest. Scientific evidence supports the use of visualization, or “mental rehearsal”. An early study by Harvard University in 2003 demonstrated through brain mapping that visualization of an exercise (in this case learning to play a piano) resulted in similar brain changes and development of neural pathways as real practice (on an actual piano). Harvard has been an academic leader in the study of visualization and currently offers a course on visualization in their School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Visualization and Transformation

Below are some Visualization Tips, adapted from my book, Tools for Transformation.

  • Start by closing your eyes and relaxing. Then begin to imagine a movie screen (or if you prefer, a blackboard) about six inches away from your face and a couple inches above your eyes. This area is your “mental screen,” the place where you will focus your mental images.
  • Bring onto your mental screen an image of a future circumstance that you wish to create. You might see yourself six months from now, living your life the way you hope it will be–sober, happy and content, as you are engaging in some pleasant interaction with people you love. Clearly visualize and feel your intended future, making the image as realistic as possible, engaging all five senses to bring it to life.
  • When you have “energized” the image with your concentrated and pointed attention, then “release” it into the world. Intend that the image will be released to “do its work” as you imagine it flowing out of your head into the atmosphere.
  • Repeat this exercise several times a day. Continue to do so till you intuitively feel you have “blueprinted” it sufficiently. Then take your mind off it and assume that it will manifest as blueprinted.


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