You may be familiar with the saying, “act as if.”
The idea behind it is, if you’re trying to make a change, it’s helpful, at first, to do some play-acting— to “act as if” what you’re trying to change has already changed.
“Act as if” is a famous slogan in the 12 step addiction recovery movement, and you frequently see it used as part of therapy interventions based on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP).
“Act as if” can be a tremendously useful tool. I’m a big fan of “acting as if”…but only if it’s used in the right way, at the right time.
Unfortunately, some people try to take “act as if” and use it in ways that can actually exacerbate emotional problems or behavioral ruts.
“Act as if” is a tool. Like most tools, it can help us build houses and fix things that are broken…or it can smash fingers.
How do we know when it’s the right time and place to use the “act as if” concept?
Broadly speaking: “act as if” tends to be most useful when you’re trying to make a behavioral change, and your mindset isn’t quite there yet.
When we try to change our behavior, on of the biggest problem we face is that our present behavior didn’t just come out of nowhere. Rather, our present behavior is a product of our current thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts and feelings usually don’t change on a dime— and because our behavior is so entwined with our thoughts and feelings, it’s hard to change our behavior when we’re stuck with the same thoughts and feelings that created the original pattern.
“Act as if” can be a helpful tool in this case. If we don’t want to do something, but we do it anyway, we’re “acting as if” the thoughts and feelings behind the behavior have changed…even if they haven’t yet.
The reason why this is helpful is, in the process of behaving differently, it’s often the case that our thoughts and feelings DO change. Think of it like hacking your thought-feeling-behavior circuitry— changing it from the back end, instead of the front end.
For example: if you’re trying to quit a substance, you might be having trouble, because your thoughts tell you “I can’t do this, it’ll be terrible if I try to quit,” and your feelings are all anxiety and dread.
But then you abstain from the substance for a day or two…and find that the world hasn’t actually ended.
This then has the effect of starting to change your thoughts and behavior about quitting, i.e., “Maybe I can do this, it’s not as terrible as I thought,” accompanied by fledgling feelings of hope and relief.
That’s how “act as if” is supposed to work.
Unfortunately, some people take “act as if” to mean “deny and disown what you’re actually thinking and feeling, and pretend that you’re feeling something else.”
That doesn’t work so well.
Denying and disowning your real thoughts and feelings is destructive to your self esteem, your sense of reality, and your motivation.
Trying to pretend you’re not feeling what you’re feeling is depressing and literally, physically exhausting.
If you’re going to use “act as if,” remember that it’s not the right tool for every problem or situation.
It comes in handy when you’re trying to build momentum on a behavioral change, but your thoughts and emotions are throwing up roadblocks.
(And even then, it has its limitations: you might try “act as if,” only to be met with so much internal resistance that the smart thing to do is to change tactics.)
But do not use “act as if” to try to beat your emotions or feelings into submission.
Not only does it not work, but it’s a very good way to wind up shut down and demoralized.
Just like any tool, “act as if” needs to be thoughtfully, intelligently incorporated into your skillset.
Just like any tool, “act as if” might be a tool that is incredibly useful for you…or it might not mesh well with your personality or needs.
There is literally no tool that works for everyone at all times…and “act as if” is no exception to that rule.
Use it wisely, and pay attention to your results.
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