One day, a client came into my therapy office because she felt socially awkward. She knew her inability to make small talk was holding her back both personally and professionally.

As a shy person, she hated going to networking events. But making connections was vital to her career.

I asked her, "What do you usually do when you go to a networking event?" She said, "I stand awkwardly off to the side and wait to see if anyone will come talk to me."

So I asked, "What would you be doing differently if you felt confident?" She said, "I'd initiate conversation and introduce myself to people."

And right then and there, she discovered her own solution to the problem. If she wanted to feel more confident, she had to act more confident.

Of course, that wasn't what she wanted to hear. She had hoped I'd have a magic wand that would make her feel more confident now. But the key to becoming more comfortable in social situations was practice.

Her instinct was to wait until she felt more confident. But confidence wasn't going to magically appear out of thin air--especially if she was standing around by herself.

If however, she started talking to people like a confident person, she'd have an opportunity to experience successful social interactions. And each successful interaction is what would boost her confidence.

Acting "As If"

"Acting as if" is a common practice prescribed in psychotherapy. It's based on the idea that if you behave like the person you want to become, you'll make it a reality.

Here are a few examples:

  • If you want to feel happier, do what happy people do--smile.
  • If you want to get more work done, act as if you are a productive person.
  • If you want to have more friends, behave like a friendly person.
  • If you want to improve your relationship, practice being a good partner.

Too often, we hesitate to spring into action. Instead, we want to wait until everything feels just right or until we think we're ready. But research shows changing your behavior first can change the way you think and feel.

The Biggest Mistake Most People Make

Faking it until you make it only works when you correctly identify something within yourself that's holding you back. Behaving like the person you want to become should be about changing the way you feel and changing the way you think.

If your motives are to prove your worth to other people, your efforts won't be successful. Research shows that approach actually backfires.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people who tried to prove their worth to others were more likely to dwell on their shortcomings. Ambitious professionals who wore luxury clothing in an effort to appear successful and MBA students who wore Rolex watches to increase their self-worth, ended up feeling like bigger failures.

Even worse, their attempts to project an image of success impaired their self-control. They struggled to resist temptation when they tried to prove that they were successful. Putting so much effort into "faking it" used up their mental resources and interfered with their ability to make good choices.

How to "Fake It" the Right Way

'Acting as if' doesn't mean you have to be phony or inauthentic. Instead, it's about bringing out the best in yourself.

As long as your motivation is in the right place, faking it until you make it can be an effective way to make your goals become reality. Just make sure you're interested in changing yourself on the inside, not simply trying to change other people's perceptions of you.

Published on: Jun 15, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.