Words to Live By: Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Grandma Philososaurus is apparently infamous for this phrase. Unfortunately, I appear to be the only grand child who didn’t hear these words of advice, and perhaps the one most in need of them.

I started my MA program at my dream school three semesters ago. I’m nearly done now. I’ve established myself socially, traveled abroad to present my work, and have built relationships with my professors. Since coming into the program, I have received praise and reassurance from peers and faculty, not to mention my wonderful support system cheering me on. Nonetheless, I’ve spent nearly three years thinking, “alright, today is the day they realize I’m fooling these bastards and kick me out of the program.” Never mind that this would be the first time in the history of ever someone was kicked out mid-semester, despite managing excellent attendance and straight As. Never mind all the qualifications and support I’ve mentioned above…. Nope, it doesn’t matter at all.

I would come home in tears, convinced I was inadequate. Further, it wasn’t about feeling “further behind” than everyone (though that was a sensation I felt) such that all I had to do was become familiar with Nietzsche and then POOF! I’d be less of a faker. No, it was deeper. I felt as if I would never, could never succeed in philosophy. Why? Not because I’m less smart, less dedicated, less creative than others in my program, it was because I was a faker. I came from a small undergraduate school where I never learned to read well. What I did learn there, I couldn’t even remember! I slept through most of my classes (I later found out this was because I was allergic to all the food I was eating), and now I’ve conned my way into my dream school.

I’ve pictured the moment that everyone found out I was faking it a hundred times… It’s a last-kid-picked-at-kickball nightmare in which all the kids are dancing around singing, “liar, liar, pumpkin eater.”

I just. felt. fake.

In addition to being absolutely sure I’d be kicked out of the program any day now, I also was pretty set on the fact that I was the only one ever in all the world to have dealt with this emotion. It was affecting my partner, who had no idea what to say or how to respond when I’d get myself so down. It was certainly affecting my school work. In a state of utter terror and panic, I posted on a message board about a particularly deep spiral of self-hate. It took some convincing, and about 15 first-person testimonials, but I was finally convinced there was this thing called Imposters Syndrome. It’s exactly as it sounds. You think you’re an imposter, that you’re not cut out for whatever it is you’re pursuing, and, generally, are made to be anxious as you’re sure that tomorrow is the day you’re discovered.

After a lot of soul searching, I realized what was particularly hard for me was that I didn’t fit the mold of a graduate student. First, I have a chronic disease that makes things that are essential to what I do (like reading and writing) impossible for any real length of time. Second, I didn’t even know where the library was. Third, I was a faker and therefore like no one else.

I decided that, without professional help and some time logged in my department, I wasn’t going to be able to overcome this. There was not going to be a day when I woke up and all of the sudden I believed in myself. On a daily basis, I was setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy; “I bet I don’t get any work done today, because I’m not a good graduate student. I’m not ready for this program. I’m not cut out for it and today is the day everyone realizes it,” became me actually not getting any work done.

So I decided to – get this – fake it.

Sure, I didn’t feel like I looked like a graduate student. I can fake that. (It’s called a blazer, betch.) I didn’t feel like I read enough. I realized I could fake that, too. Instead of self-hating and scolding myself for only having read eight pages, I relished in the fact that I took the book to a coffee shop and surrounded myself with other studiers. Something about it made me feel legitimate in a way that no amount of outside reassurance was able to do. I began to sit down for, actually, a pretty long time. Each time I went, I sat down for a little longer. I didn’t always work productively, but I pretended like the whole time I was sitting there I was reading and not at all dreaming about running away with Adam Scott (of Party Down and Parks and Recreation). Then, the craziest thing happened: I realized, upon leaving the coffee shop, that I had actually worked the entire time. I had read, and read well, and was now done for my work for the whole day.

Furthermore, I found out how easy faking it really was. And, this is just a wild guess, but perhaps its because I was never such a faker to begin with.

What I mean by faking it, is to walk the walk and talk the talk. What I don’t mean is to be disingenuous. It may be hard to see this distinction, but the difference is WHAT you’re trying to fake. (I’m currently resisting the urge to reference Scrubs as a way to clear this up…must…resist…) You shouldn’t pretend like you have no problems, ever, and you’re the most perfect graduate student, but what is helpful is to fake the confidence for awhile. It doesn’t mean “don’t ask for help” if you’re at a new job, but it does mean to go through the motions until they feel like your motions. I bet you’ll find it comes pretty naturally.

I’m not sure I’ve fully recovered. I do know, however, that I’m getting there. My first “gold star” on the road to recovery was when I really pretended to know what the hell I was talking about and took up an incredibly gutsy research topic. (If you’re wondering how the story ends, it’s the one I’ve presented abroad.) And today, well, today was the day that I spoke in class.

I have no doubt that some of you have felt or are feeling a similar way. I encourage you to talk about it, be it here at Persephone, with a professional therapist, or in a journal you keep hidden deep in a drawer, lest anyone find it and discover your secret. Really ask yourself what it is that you fear (aside from, you know, getting caught being an impostor) and why it is.

And, when in doubt, fake it ’til you make it.

By philososaurus

Raised on the farmlands of the Midwest, this gluten-free, feminist bunny took New York City by storm earning an MA in Philosophy. She’s currently encroaching on the normative territories in Chicago, spending time jamming the Discursive machines of ‘health’ and ‘illness,' and relaxing with her animal companions: Pfeffer, Yoshi, and Mr(ish) 'Saurus, her human-animal partner.

44 replies on “Words to Live By: Fake It ‘Til You Make It”

I really appreciated this article. I’m applying to grad school now, and am feeling a lot of the same things. I applied to grad school last year and was accepted, but various life things prevented me from attending. Now I’m really concerned about getting in again, as I’m kind of convinced it was just luck before. I’m also worried that if I get in, I wont have a clue what I’m doing. It’s nice to know others worry about similar things, and have overcome them.

Is it possible to have Impostor Syndrome as an undergrad? Because I’m working on a senior thesis and all my advisors think I’m doing fine, but I feel like I”m going to get to my defense and FREEZE, and they’re going to tell me how horrible my work is and how I clearly know nothing and how did I possibly make it into honors and they’re converting my honors credit to independent study. I recently had a professor recommend that I go for a Masters at Oxford and my immediate response was “NOT THAT SMART.” Not that I don’t have the grades, because I do, but because I’m just. not. that. smart. I waver between being afraid that I’m not good enough but I’ve bluffed my way into everyone thinking I am, and being afraid that my own self-doubt will cripple me.

In any case, I’m so glad I found this article. Thanks!

It TOTALLY is, and it doesn’t just apply to school even.

Do you have any professors you can talk to about this? Just about our nerves surrounding the defense?

And I assure you, you ARE that smart if your professor told you to apply.

Yea, that’s what I wave between those two things, too. I think they’re related. That’s when I realized I had to do something about it… I’d just scare myself out of getting anything done! Some days, too, I just have to sit in it, and leave the house and go to a museum or SOMETHING. Anything to get around sitting down and sitting in self-hate and not getting anything done… So hard.<3

I very much agree with this; it’s a large part of my diss. on Pascal! If you can’t accept the wager, then here’s the punchline: fake it as if you already believe, and you will find you are already have been believing. It’s a lesson applicable everywhere, wherever doubt could paralyze. Athletes believe in their success, because to envision failure means the body prepares for it. Radiolab’s episode “Deception” also describes this phenomenon…

This kind of describes my whole college experience (I have only a bachelor’s).  I went to school when I was 25, mostly because I was fired from a job I did really well and had no idea what to do next.  I was suffering from depression and was trying to get over my first real serious relationship (as tumultuous as it was).  I decided I needed to prove to myself I could do whatever I set my mind on, so I went to college.

And for the 5 years it took me to earn a 4 year degree, I was convinced I was a fraud.  I did all the work, but I definitely didn’t put all my effort into it.  I had been a straight A student most of my life (minus a year when I dealt with my parents getting divorced) but I was content with getting Cs.  I was working full time and attending school full time, getting about 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night.

I never spoke to an adviser, I never did any extra-curricular activities, I never really took the college thing all that seriously.  But somehow I got all the credits I needed, took all the courses I needed, and graduated with a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice a month before my 30th birthday.   (sidenote: I have an interest in criminal justice, even if I don’t think I will ever work in the field – I figured if I was going to go to college, I was going to study something I liked… so there you go.)

Even now, if I look at my degree, I feel like I somehow stole the degree – I seem to have gotten it doing a heck of a lot less than the other people in my major.  Maybe it was because I didn’t look at it as anything more than a personal challenge?

Firstly, hells yea for studying something that you like.

Thanks for sharing your story, too. I think I can get so wrapped up in the “omfg I suck at everything” that I lose the personal challenge that made me really fall in love with philosophy originally.

I’d venture to say, even, that you probably got MORE out of your degree because it was of personal interest; it’s just that, because you’re not using it/the knowledge every day (like for a job in criminal justice), that you don’t feel it as often.

The depression aspect is definitely part of it for me, too. My depression is really minor, but it affects my productivity and motivation quite clearly. As I mention in the post, I have a chronic disease, so I’m always trying different medicines, etc and some result in depression, others help it… I can get depressed from eating the wrong food by chemistry is so sensitive! It definitely attributes to the present-ness of the anxiety of the “omfg I suck at everything,” too.

What are you doing now if not criminal justice?

Yep, I’ve been there. I don’t think I was quite as anxious (but then again, I’ve always had sort of a “fuck it” attitude to most things I do, even if they are important to me), but nevertheless, I could never quite believe how I’d “fooled” people at graduate school. I grew up poor, went to an academically challenging but insanely small and unknown college, and then somehow stumbled into a prestigious graduate program at an Ivy League school. I couldn’t ever quite believe it, and worked myself into the ground to get straight A’s because I always thought everyone around me must be so much smarter.

I didn’t finish the degree, for a myriad of reasons, but I did learn an important lesson: Sometimes, it really isn’t how smart you are – it’s how hard you work. I was in classes with geniuses – I mean, actual geniuses. I was in class with people who had traveled the world, went to incredible schools for their undergraduate, and to me – little old me from the Midwest with my liberal arts degree from a college no one ever heard of – they were like demi-gods. But you know? There were always a few of them that dropped out each semester, citing the work was too hard. I worked full time while going to school part time and still got straight A’s – and it wasn’t because I was as smart as they were. No, I just worked my ass off. I’m insanely proud of the world I did there, and you better believe that one year of graduate schooling is proudly displayed on my resume, but that was an incredibly important lesson for me to learn and did a lot for my self-confidence.

Man! You’re such a badass. There’s another student in my program, who on top of being super smart and kind, had a full time position as a curator’s assistent at the effin’ Guggenheim Museum. AND GRADUATED A SEMESTER EARLY.

I concur that, at a certain point, it’s just about how hard you work. I also came from a tiny, unheard of college that most DEFINITELY was not known for its philosophy department, and am likewise surrounded by ivy leaguers who have gone to some of the best schools in the US. I feel silly sometimes. Just silly. And even though I think it’s about hard work– I think it’s what really sets a part the “middle of the pack” from the “top dogs” — when I’m dealing with the imposter thing, no amount of hardwork makes me feel better. And that’s even presuming I can get to work! It’s sooo crippling.

I’m so in the same boat.

Here I am, with a crazy personally designed major plus another normal one plus a minor at a ridiculously expensive school. I’ve founded a student organization. I’m in the middle of studying abroad for a year. I have a 3.6 GPA.

But when you say that “What I did learn there, I couldn’t even remember!” I felt like you were reading my mind! I never feel secure in my future. The only thing I am sure of is that I’ll be paying off this debt for the rest of my young life! I take all liberal arts or social science classes and feel like the ‘hard’ sciences are looking down on me. I feel like I should be reading philosophical classics and dissertations in my free time.

I’m a huge faker! But somehow I’ll never lose my inner knowledge that I’m going to change the world ‘when I grow up’. I never doubt that I’ll do big things! (I just wish someone would tell me ahead of time so that I could plan for them…) It’s crazy how lost I can feel sometimes.

1) Honey, shrug off that debt. Facts of life, man.

2) When you said “I take all liberal arts or social science classes and feel like the ‘hard’ sciences are looking down on me. I feel like I should be reading philosophical classics and dissertations in my free time,” you’re reading MY MIND.

3) Ok. Actually the whole thing is reading my mind. The one thing I’ve never doubted is how great of a teacher I’d be. I’d be the fucking BEST teacher. I mean, it’ll take me awhile to work out the kinks of actual practice, btu give me a few years dammit, I’ll blow ur miiiiiiind. But, today, nonetheless, I think things like “if I were a real graduate student, I’d never want to put a book down.” WRONGO (probably… errr……. herein lies the problem?)

I’ve toyed with leaving academia… mostly on my winter breaks, but then I get back to classes and all I can think is, “nope. this. this is me.” It may not work out for some number of reasons, and if it doesn’t, I’ll find a new path, but I’ll be damned if the reason why it doesn’t work out is because I refuse to let it.


Firstly, I never felt like I learned something until I was forced to apply it somewhere else. Turns out, I did learn quite a few things! Even if I have to go back and check my facts, the essential lines of reasoning are still there. It’s very reassuring when you can take part in a discussion that you initally thought were not smart enough to participate in. I call it learning by Osmosis. :-)

Seconly, OMG. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going are those moments where I think: THIS. This is what i want to be doing. I am having so much fun, am so proud to be here, right now.

These moments are precious and few and far between, but they pop up every once in a while. And then I try to hold on to that and power through the inevitably coming bout of near-crippling insecurity and depression.

OMG. I have no idea how this will translate to being a step parent. I think I’d HAVE to say, “listen, kid, this is new for the both of us. no idea what the fuck I’m doing,” because you certainly don’t want to force it (I know you know all this). I suppose, though, that where it would apply is really going through the motions and committing to them, even if you feel unsure….

interestingly, it’s not so much my relationship with my stepson – that’s pretty good (although he is 13…ah, the teen years).  we’ve been a family for about 9 years now.  it’s more all the other parents, specifically his mother and her friends.  i let their commentary get under my skin.  and yet – i’m on the PTO, volunteer at the school and library, help run the boy scout troop… so, walking the walk.  i think that’s what resonated most for me in your article – not fitting “the mold”, but then choosing to go to the coffee shop and discovering that you do have your own mold, and that you are good at what you do.

Ah, that rings SO true!

I have decided a long time ago that I will fake it till I make it. Honestly, I am still waiting for that surge in confidence.

Meanwhile, I have become quite convincing at faking confidence! Sometimes when I ask for feedback, I get told that I have a calm demeanor, and then people are surprised when I tell them that I was in fact effing TERRIFIED THE ENTIRE TIME and about to crap my pants or run away. No one but maybe my Mum ever picks up on this.

In a new working or study environment, I find that it helps me to say less at first, and only take part when I am sure about what I want to say. Not blabbering about, and then striving to say only sensible things goes a long way in making you seem competent, even if inside you do not feel like it.

I also find that it does depend a lot on my environment. If I have colleagues and superiors that treat me like a valuable employee, I become confident in my dealings quite easily. If I get subtle put-downs, or get micro-managed all the time, I retreat into myself and let my inner doubts take over…


Yea environment DEFINITELY helps. I’m in an MA program, but often take PhD classes (they are at another campus), and the diference in the environment is NIGHT AND DAY. The MA classes are warm and open and the PhD ones are stuffy and uncomfortable. This, btw, has nothing to do with the people! Well, it does and it doesn’t… I’m friends with both sets of groups, so it’s not like I feel without allies… It’s weird, man. I can’t put my finger on it.

In my experience, it already starts how you are being introduced to somebody, or being addressed by somebody. If you come in somewhere and they introduce you as the small MA student who just dopped by to listen in, you are already working uphill.

Maybe it is also because the PhD environment is much more competitive than the MA? I imagine the spirit of competition is so pervasive that it trumps any kind of fellowship…

I am constantly amazed at how subtly this all works, and yet we all pick up on the signals (some being more receptive / sensitive than others) and then ask ourselves: why do I feel so uncomfortable in this particular surrounding?

This was published at pretty much perfect timing for me.  I just found out in a meeting with my adviser that have to rewrite one of the documents for my PhD candidacy . As someone who definitely has imposter syndrome generally, I am finding that this failure in  this one area is really working in concert with the on going feeling like I’m not good enough to be in gradschool. I have to remember that this is crazy, I have been successful in a lot of other areas (mainly getting into and presenting at conferences) and when I can’t remember that, perhaps I need to at least fake this confidence.

Oof, I hear you (see: post =) ). The catch about it is that it doesn’t matter how many notches in the “I’m awesome” belt that you get, the only ones that matter are the ones that involve negative, neutral, or absent of commentary. That’s the whole point of the imposters syndrom; it has nothing to do with all those conferences!

I couldn’t seem to actually fake the confidence. What I could do was pretend like I was a graduate student, which involved going to the library on a daily basis, dressing like I was heading to teach a class, etc. I found that going through the motions was all it really took.


It’s horrible how perverted this thinking is – and I fall prey to this myself.

Recently, my boss and I had a chat before I was leaving for another work. He praised me and thanked me for the good cooperation and my capabilities to shoulder some things he would normally not have asked of somebody in my position. Then he mentioned one thing that he had not liked – he said that this piece was not up to his expectations.

I went home and was horrified to realize that I only remembered that. one. criticism. Seriously, the words of praise flew right out of my head. I would not even be able to recall exactly what he said. But I remember that negative comment.

And, mind you, he specifically said that he was overall very happy with my work.

I hear ya!

How do we get past this? Is there some behavioral therapy I could look into? Seriously, I read the above mentioned article on Imposter Syndrome and THIS IS MY LIFE.

I also get this feeling that every success I ever had was due to blind luck. I even go so far as not to study as hard as I could because then I could chalk up the failure to laziness and not to being not good enough. And on an intellectual level I know that this is not true. I maybe did not work my ass off for everything, but I don’t think it was all handouts, either.


Man, I don’t know how to fix it honestly. The best thing I feel like I can do is to keep it in check, and I think that differs for each person… for me it’s talking about it, and trying to get at what my real fear is (and it changes… sometimes its that my comrades don’t find me smart enough, others my professors, other times I’m fearing the future in the field).

On the short term of things, I find that when I’m spiraling, just stopping my work and going for a walk, or changing location helps. Sometimes I take the day off because I know today is not the day of productivity.

I’m a pro-therapy kind of gal. I think everyone could use and hour a week to talk shit out, but I know it’s not for everyone. If you have good insurance and can, I’d suggest therapy. Again, not that it’s the only way to deal with it, but I think the pressures of life are enough to get some guided help.

And/or you come over this way and we remind you how fabulously smart you are, to take a few deep breaths, and get back to work. =)

The catch about it is that it doesn’t matter how many notches in the “I’m awesome” belt that you get, the only ones that matter are the ones that involve negative, neutral, or absent of commentary.

Yes, this. I found out this news about my candidacy stuff the same day as I found out I was moving to the next stage of a grant competition… guess which one I’ve spent more time stewing over?


I get this feeling from the creative end of things. I try going to writing workshops and participating in beta reading and just feel like I am not even close to being as talented as the other people I see. It was actually a big reason that I didn’t take creative writing or art classes in college: I was just too damned worried that I would be denounced as an artistic fraud. I’m still getting over this feeling, and who knows, I may never, but I think that taking strides to defeat your fear is the best way to go about it. I applaud you! And congrats and presenting abroad! I can only hope to do that someday!

Oh sheesh. I’m about to go to a class at an artists gym thing and I could have signed up for SO MANY creative ones, but OBVIOUSLY I did the one where I use my brain the most “Intro to Color Theory.” Even with this class, I’m like massively doing research about color and basic concepts. The whole effin’ point is to play around and get a sense of color!

Certainly I think that fear – in general – can be driving, but what’s particular about Imposters Syndrom and like feelings is that its NOT CONDUCIVE to productivity. It’s crippling!

I’m sure it’s just as bad, if not worse, when dealing with creative stuff.

If anything, this post and all you lovely commenters proves that we’re not alone. ;)

Seriously, I’ve never met anyone whose looked at me and been like “say whaaa? what the hell are you talking about?” (And the people that I think would respond that way, I don’t tell about it. Mostly because I know that if they said that, they’d be faking it and I wouldn’t want to break their hearts by pointing out that if they DON’T feel unsure about the level of their work, they’re doing it wrong/not pushing themselves enough….. but that’s another story about the problems within philosophy…….=) )

I sympathize with this. I heard this saying that really makes me chuckle because it’s SO TRUE:

“When you get your bachelors, you think you know everything. When you get your masters, you realize you know nothing. And when you get your PhD, you realize NO ONE knows anything.”

I was homeschooled, so I have no problem being vocal in class, because once I was pulled out of public school in 3rd grade, that’s simply what I had to do in my K-12 equivalent at home. And I ALWAYS had to be prepared, since I was the only student! I couldn’t just let other people take over if I wasn’t comfortable.

But I came to philosophy late in my undergraduate career, and I’ve fought feeling like I’m just not well-rounded enough because of it. I’ve been constantly told that I’m just “made” for philosophy and that I have a lot good to say, but I’ve definitely had times where I question my own credentials, where I feel like everyone else just knows more than me.

But I learned, through time and conversation, that so many of the people whom I looked up to as so much better than me felt just as insecure as I did. That was really a shocker. …So I try not to worry about it anymore. Sometimes I still do, but most of the time I don’t.

THIS. So true.

Making friends with the ‘upperclassman’ was definitely important for me feeling more secure. I lived with second-years when I was first starting out. They assured me that they felt the same way their first year (only their first year?#?#?#?!?!KLSJDVF!?), but I was still convinced they didn’t understand the depth to which I felt inadequate!

And yes, I came to philosophy late, and feminism even later. And the philosophy classes I was in, I don’t remember (I was really sick at the time… I now know in hindsight).

I’d love to talk about your xp being home schooled. I’m always shudder at the idea of putting any child of mine in high school, but then I realize “well, I turned out fine…. and I had a helluva time.”

I totally feel you! Coming to a field like philosophy late can be completely nerve-wracking, because all your classmates seem to have had far more experience than you, so you MUST be a total faker when people tell you you’re so awesome!

Sickness can add to that hardcore, and I’m sorry you had to deal with that. That’s no good. :(

I don’t mind talking about being homeschooled! My family was privileged enough that it was an option for us, but public school was failing me so hard it was either that or private school, and my parents couldn’t aford the latter.

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