We live in a world where it’s totally socially acceptable to pretend, to “fake it ’til we make it,” and even to tell white lies. In some ways this works for us. As Martha Beck wisely says, “Duplicity can make it easier to get what you want, unless what you want is health and happiness. Duplicity sucks at that.”
Here’s why, in the end, pretending isn’t as effective as authenticity, not just for our health and happiness, but for helping us accomplish our goals:
#1: Pretending doesn’t fool people. Say you don’t want to reveal to your co-workers that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, and you’re feeling really blue. Research shows that if you pretend that you had a great weekend and you’re feeling great–and you’re not–you’ll probably make the people around you feel worse, too. Why?
We humans aren’t actually very good at hiding how we are feeling. We exhibit microexpressions that the people we are with might not know they are registering but that trigger mirror neurons—so a little part of their brain thinks that they are feeling our negative feelings. So trying to suppress negative emotions when we are talking with someone—like when we don’t want to trouble someone else with our own distress—actually increases stress levels of both people more than if we had shared our distress in the first place. (It also reduces rapport and inhibits the connection between two people.)
#2: You’ll find it harder to focus. Pretending takes a huge conscious effort—it’s an act of self-control that drains your brain of its power to focus and do deep work. That’s because performing or pretending to be or feel something you’re not requires tremendous self-control.
Tons of research suggests that our ability to repeatedly exert our self-control is actually quite limited. Like a muscle that tires and can no longer perform at its peak strength after a workout, our self-control is diminished by previous efforts at control, even if those efforts take place in a totally different realm. So that little fib at the water cooler you told in order to make yourself seem better than you are is going to make it hard for you to focus later in the afternoon. A performance or any attempt to hide who you really are or pretend to be something you aren’t is going to make it harder later to control your attention, your thoughts, and to regulate your emotions. It’ll increase the odds that you react more aggressively to a provocation, eat more tempting snacks, engage in riskier behaviors, and—this one is pretty compelling to me—you’ll perform more poorly on tasks that require executive function, like managing your time, planning, or organizing.
#3: You’ll become more stressed and anxious. Let’s just call it like it is: pretending to be or feel something that you don’t is a lie.
And lying, even if we do it a lot, or are good at it, is very stressful to our brains and our body. The polygraph test depends on this: “Lie Detectors” don’t actually detect lies, but rather they detect the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. These tests sense changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, and breathing. They also detect when someone’s vocal pitch has changed in a nearly imperceptible way, a consequence of tension in the body that tightens vocal chords.
The physiological changes that lie detectors sense are caused by glucocorticoids, hormones that are released during a stress response. And as I’m sure you well know, stress hormones are bad news for your health and happiness over the long run.
Research shows that people who are given instructions for how to lie less in their day-to-day lives actually are able to lie less, and when they do, their physical health improves. For example, they report less trouble sleeping, less tension, fewer headaches, and fewer sore throats. These improvements in health are likely caused by a lessened stress response.
And that’s not all: When the people in the above study lied less, they also reported improvements in their relationships and less anxiety.
We don’t lie or pretend or perform all the time, of course. But when we do, it’s important to see the consequences: increased stress, decreased willpower, impaired relationships.
These tactics to feel better—lying, pretending, and numbing our emotions—always backfire in the end. They make life hard, eliminating any possibility that we will find our flow, or that we will be able to operate from our sweet spot, that place where we have both EASE and POWER.
Numbing, pretending, or fibbing in any way is an act of not feeling what you really feel. It’s a denial of your own authenticity, of who you really are.
This post is from a series about authenticity from the “Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. Want to go on to the next class or start the course from the beginning? It’s free! Just go to The Science of Finding Flow course page. Enjoy!