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The Harm of Pretending
Is the payoff of pretending you’re extroverted worth the harm it does to you?
Along with “rags to riches,” our culture celebrates the myth that pretending can transform you into an ideal that seemed out of reach. “Just whistle a happy tune,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein song goes, and you may end up being as brave as you’ve pretended to be. The business version of the myth, “fake it till you make it,” also implies that by putting on an act you can become the competent, confident and well-rewarded worker that everyone likes. Psychological commentary on this approach goes all the way back to William James, who more than a hundred years ago advised, “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.”
When it comes to introverts, this line of thinking tells us that for our own good, we should smile more, be effervescent and pretend to be interested in others’ silly chitchat. With enough of an act, shazam! We’ll actually be more extroverted and feel happier.
There’s a tiny truth there along with a big lie. Researchers have found that acting more extroverted than you really are can indeed boost your energy and elevate your mood – for around one hour. After that hour, the studies show, your pretending causes a delayed reaction of exhaustion. As Inc. writer Jessica Stillman put it, “Pretending to be someone you fundamentally are not uses up a tremendous amount of energy that you can no longer devote to finding solutions, fixing problems, and building the future.”
Introverts who habitually turn themselves inside out in order to satisfy others’ social expectations may be headed for burnout. The severe energy depletion of burnout shows up in the form of numbness, lack of focus, irritability, mental fog or all of the above. Another key warning sign: You feel you can hardly move even though you did nothing more physically demanding than trying for hours to keep a smile on your face.
Psychologically, pretending to be extroverted when you’re not produces dissonance and a feeling of inauthenticity. It causes you to experience self-disgust, despair and even depression. Moreover, in many situations putting on a convincing act requires you to keep doing it because your credibility would suffer if you’re not able to be consistent.
Socially, pretending too often may cause the wrong kind of people to come into your life, people who expect your continued effervescence, rather than folks who will treasure you for yourself and let you chill. Not being your real self eventually confuses people and mucks up your relationships.
In the decade and a half that I coached introverts on how to market their business, I observed another kind of harm. I saw that just accepting the premise that effective marketing requires acting like an extrovert is devastating for many people. They feel caught in a vise: “I want to build a business doing work that I’m good at and that’s needed in the world. But the gurus say that to attract clients I have to pretend to be bubbly and boastful. That’s not me.” So they stay on the sidelines, at least until they realize the truth from someone like me or from their own inner voice: Clients who appreciate their introvert strengths will hire them if they highlight their actual personality rather than pretend to fit the prescribed ideal. I saw many introverts go from feeling “What’s wrong with me?” or “Do I really need to sell out to succeed?” to having a thriving business while being themselves.
The biggest lie in this arena is that only one type of personality can lead to professional, personal and emotional success. Don’t swallow it.