We’ve all heard the expression “fake it till you make it”. We might be describing the process of going through the motions at work until we clock out for the day. Or maybe its drinking corporate Kool-Aid to appear to be a more engaged employee. In social settings, it may involve wearing a more extroverted mask to flow with the occasion. But whichever way the expression is used, it always indicates some form of pretending to be experiencing something that we are not at that moment. And one may think that this is an intangible part of our minds; something we can’t quantify or measure specifically. It is indeed a phenomenal feature of our ability to creatively express ourselves. However, science suggests there is more substance to this expression.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Looking through the lenses of social and neuropsychology, studies have shown that by repeatedly pretending to be something that we are not, we’re laying new pathways in our brains, and our seemingly ingenuine behavior and overall presentation is now more of a fixed personality trait. As it refers to human behavior and social performance, we can see the expression is better suited as “fake it till you become it”, in that becoming it is not a static destination, but rather an ongoing dynamic process. This is perhaps why it is so important to be mindful of how we speak to ourselves. Through neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and change form over time, we are often making ourselves feel worse when we follow negative biases and perceptions as they are shaped by our lived experience. Trauma survivors often struggle with simply thinking positively but acting and behaving positively is not just a fad. One incredibly fun way to harness the power of neuroplasticity is through Improv theater and other forms of spontaneous creative expression.
How Improv Theatre Can Be a Therapeutic Tool
When we think of improv, we usually think humor and comedy. And that’s just one part of the art, and yet an extremely powerful one when it comes to balancing the scales with the tragedy that also occurs in life. Research into the evolution of humor suggests that it may have developed as a social adhesive - something to create bonds between people and help prevent conflict since the dawn of time. Ancient cave drawings reveal humorous themes, and traditions like Native American powwows include stories and jokes as primary elements. As modern society progresses, so does our understanding of humor’s social function.
One of the earliest applications of Improv was in psychotherapy, where practitioners found that it could be beneficial in facilitating communication and breaking down barriers between therapist and patient. It has also proved useful in group therapy sessions, providing an avenue for participants to express themselves safely and without fear of judgment. Improv theater can even be used as part of substance abuse treatment programs, helping clients explore their emotions in a fun and accessible way. From the classroom to the corporate boardroom, improv theatre is finding its way into more therapeutic settings than ever before - proving time and time again its usefulness as a tool for improving mental wellbeing. With its potential for unlocking new communication pathways and fostering self-expression, it's no wonder that improv theater has become an invaluable asset in helping those who need it most.
Additionally, many argue that improv is an excellent form of mindfulness practice: When we engage in improvisation activities, we are actively living in the present moment instead of ruminating on past experiences or worrying about future ones. Improv also encourages us to recognize the perspectives of others, thus helping us to break through social barriers.
Your Brain is Always Listening
So, when it comes to “faking it until you become it”, it stands to reason that practicing positive or confident behaviors can lead to real behavioral change over time. In other words, by pretending to be something you aren’t quite yet, your brain will eventually catch up and you will indeed become the person you want to be! This is especially helpful for trauma survivors and those living with chronic stress because so much of their perceptual landscape is based in negative beliefs, not negative facts. Your brain is always listening. Let's give neuroplasticity a chance and see what happens. We might just surprise ourselves. There are both in person and online improv theater and other beginner performing arts classes offered, and with a simple google search you can find one near you or bring it right into your home virtually.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.