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  • Writer's pictureDr Georgina Barnett


Fake it ‘til you make it - the quirky advice from many a guru to shortcut our way to confidence and competence. Is this an effective strategy or are we ‘pretending to be what we’re not’, leaving us with a sense of denying our true selves?

In CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) we frequently emphasise the cognitive element of changing our thinking, but remember the behavioural part – can we lead change through a change in our behaviour? The short answer is yes, and it’s a powerful way to induce transformation.

Consider a new lecturer I was working with who had focused for years on his subject, but, despite his dream of being a charismatic and confident lecturer, found himself struggling to get beyond basic delivery and just trying to survive his couple of hours in front of a class – a world away from the image of what he wanted for himself. Taking what was a novel approach for him, he began acting with animation and excitement, which changed his energy and interaction with his students and therefore their response to him. Their increased interest and attention empowered him to take even more courageous steps, to be daring and creative in his teaching, until he was well on his way to matching the image he’d pictured of himself in his mind.

The idea of putting behaviour first is the same principle as if you are sitting in a state of apathy, and you suddenly get up, assume a positive posture and start moving in a purposeful way – the body sends messages back to the brain and the brain catches up, thereby creating the energy you were seeking. This is sometimes a faster and more effective way than any amount of ‘psyching yourself up’.

But is all this authentic?

From our earliest experiences we learn behaviours which fit our early environments in order to protect ourselves and gain approval. Whilst some of these patterns of behaving and relating serve us, others do not, particularly if we have difficult early experiences. We can fall into the mode of thinking which suggests ‘that’s just the way I am’.

Are we resigned to run on our early programmes and corresponding behaviours forever? Why shouldn’t we change aspects of ourselves that no longer work for us, or that we feel unhappy with? Why shouldn’t we emerge, grow, develop?

A client of mine who had been shy since childhood having been directed to ‘keep herself to herself’ by her early carers, learned how defining herself as shy had proved a limiting self-concept, a self-fulfilling prophecy which kept her emotionally distanced from people she had yearned to connect with for years. We discussed how to effect change, and she spoke of her joy when she began this project and had fun ‘acting parts’ and trying out new ways of relating and conversing, finding herself developing aspects of herself that had lain dormant for years.

This motivation is of course different from someone who is trying to change themselves because they feel they are unlovable or in some way inferior as they are. This requires a different system of self-compassion, love and acceptance. Behavioural techniques should be practiced from a place of curiosity and not out of feeling we ‘should’ be different or conform in some way.

The way to approach changes in behaviour is from a spirit of experimentation. Setting up expectations or making demands will leave you undermining yourself, as trying out new skills and behaviours can feel false or strange initially. An attitude of experimentation puts you in control – you can observe your results more objectively and make adjustments in accordance with your findings. Remember, any changes you make are still coming from you, from your unique way of interacting with the world.

This is the spirit of setting your personality free on the world for the sheer joy of it’s development and the positive outcomes this has for yourself and others, afterall, how can we cultivate new aspects of our self if we don’t experiment? Sometimes our aspirations don’t match our backgrounds, sometimes they do. However the land lies for you, it’s worth remembering we do not have to be products of our pasts when we have so much power within us.

Photography: @mvdheuvel


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