The uses and misuses of “act as if.”

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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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Make time for the parts of yourself. Every day.

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You need to work with the different parts of yourself every day. 

No exceptions. 

No days off. 

There will never be a day where you don’t need to pay attention to what the various parts of yourself are saying and needing. 

There is never a day when what the various parts of you are trying to communicate to you, isn’t important. 

Yet for some reason there is a significant subset of people who absolutely hate listening to themselves. 

They hate paying attention to what the parts of themselves are saying and needing. 

They hate making time to pay attention to, let alone actively communicate with, the parts of themselves. 

As a result, the various parts of themselves feel neglected and disrespected…and before long, neglected, irritated parts of you WILL find ways to make themselves seen and heard by you. 

They WILL evoke anxiety to make themselves heard. 

They WILL evoke depression in order to get you to slow down and look inward. 

They WILL seize control of your dreams and turn them into nightmares. 

Some people don’t want to listen to or communicate with the various parts of themselves because they think it’s a hassle. They’re annoyed they have to do it. They think that “normal” people shouldn’t have to explicitly sit down and make time to have actual conversations with themselves, so why should they? 

Remember: we ALL have “parts.” 

For some people, like those diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, those parts can seem to take on a life of their own— but it’s important for DID patients to understand that what they’re experiencing is just an amplification of something that happens to EVERYONE. 

(The reason it happens is because early developmental trauma makes it more difficult for peoples’ personalities to “gel” and integrate as they’re growing up, due to lack of psychoemotional support and bonding— i.e., trauma makes the personality more prone to “splinter” in the first place.) 

EVERYONE has parts of themselves that experience, want, and need different things. 

EVERYONE has to figure out how to communicate with, listen to, and relate constructively to the parts of themselves. 

EVERYONE will pay the price if they ignore, neglect, or abuse parts of themselves. 

It’s not an abnormal thing to have to sit down and figure out how to manage your relationship with the various parts of you. 

If you neglect the part of you that needs more stimulation, you’re going to pay the price in depression. 

If you neglect the part of you that needs more connection, you’re going to pay the price in loneliness. 

If you neglect the part of you that needs more security, you’re going to pay the price in anxiety. 

If you neglect the various parts of yourself altogether, you’re gong to pay the price in intrusive thoughts and feelings, and impulsive behavioral urges that seem to “come out of nowhere.” 

The good news is, relating to yourself really isn’t that hard. 

It’s frustrating and embarrassing…only because of the thoughts that you throw at it. 

It’s kind of like taking medication or getting a cast. Maybe we don’t WANT to do it, because we figure to acquiesce to medical treatment means we’re not “tough.” 

But is it the smart thing to do? If you want to function, it is. 

Is it a necessary thing to do? If you want to heal, it is. 

We truly, truly, need to get over our reluctance to create time for self-communication, self-nurturing, and self-care 

Our need for these things doesn’t make us weak. 

It means we are human beings that have certain needs that go beyond hunger, thirst, and rest. 

Your psychoemotional needs will only wait so long on the back burner. 

 

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Our lives will always be imperfect. And that’s the good news.

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Our lives are, and always will be, imperfect. 

They are constantly under construction. 

We are constantly building who we are and what we want to experience. 

We are constantly constructing a life that conforms to our values and visions. 

But we have to come to terms with the fact that the building will never be complete. 

We’re never going to get to a place where no renovations are needed. 

We’ll never get to that place where we’ve figured everything out, got everything down, where we’re just doing all the right stuff and none of the self-defeating stuff. 

That place of perfection doesn’t exist. 

And it’s a good thing, too: because if that place of perfection existed, we’d lose all opportunities to course correct. 

It’s in course correcting that we learn. 

It’s in fixing mistakes and missteps that we figure out who we are and what we need. 

It’s in striving for new goals and heights that we get clear about the kind of life we want to build from here. 

Thank GOODNESS our lives will always be imperfect. 

Can you imagine how unsatisfying a perfect life would be? 

If we just built the life we imagined years ago— when you were a different person, with different experiences, different needs, different goals, and maybe even different values— and that was it? 

See, a lot of us get it in our heads that we want to figure things out, make the progress, get the life— you know, get the romantic partner, get the skillset, get the job, get the bank balance, whatever— and then sit back and enjoy it. 

We figure that we’ve been through enough pain, enough trauma, in our lives, that all we want to do is figure stuff out and then rest. 

We figure that we’ve spent more than enough time being dissatisfied, that all we really want to do is achieve that moment of satisfaction, and make it last. 

The thing is, in constructing that life— in moving toward that vision— we discover new things that we’re interested in. 

We add to and refine our vision of “the good life.” 

We learn about new potential goals. 

We meet other people who show us things that we never even thought about. 

We change as people along the journey…and, as a result, our initial vision of what “the good life” might have entailed, no longer fits. At least not perfectly. 

That’s what happens in the real world. 

As you get better, as you recover, as you build the life you’d prefer to live, as you refine your tools and skills, you change. 

Along the way we realize that we are on a journey— but it’s not a journey toward one, single, defined destination. 

The point isn’t even to GET to that destination. Not exactly. 

The point is to get really good at journeying. 

The point is to learn how to draw satisfaction from the journeying. 

And we can. 

We can draw SO MUCH satisfaction from this journey we’re all on. 

Not just satisfaction, either. We can draw SO MUCH passion, and joy, and humor, and drama, and, yes, pain and heartache, too, from this journey. 

So you’ve realized you’ll never hit that place of perfection, of fully realized therapeutic and spiritual wholeness? 

Good. 

That’s the first step to figuring out how to REALLY win in this project called life. 

 

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Why we need to step up and choose– even if the options suck.

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Our choices in life are usually limited. 

That’s a fact. There’s no point in denying it. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t HAVE choices, however. 

We almost always DO have choices— particularly in what we focus on, how we interpret events, and how we choose to respond. 

But we do need to acknowledge, realistically, that our choices are not infinite. They’re not unlimited. They’re often not ideal. 

For some reason, lots of people get up in their heads about what having limited choices means out there in the real world. 

They get it in their heads that because they don’t have an ideal selection of choices available, that means they are utterly devoid of any choices in a situation. 

Or perhaps they get it in their heads that, since circumstances limit their ability to choose in the moment, that they are utterly powerless in a situation— that they shouldn’t even TRY to exercise their ability to choose, given the limited options available to them. 

It’s a bummer that our choices are often limited, no doubt. 

It’s a drag that our choices are often not ideal. 

It would be preferable, at all times, to be able to choose from an infinite number of ideal options. 

But even if we don’t live in that world— and I assure you, we do not— that doesn’t mean we should just give up and let others make our choices for us. 

And believe me: if we fail to exercise our ability to choose, others WILL happily choose for us. 

In fact, there are lots of individuals and organizations who are standing by, actively waiting, practically salivating at the notion of making our choices for us. 

So sometimes our choices are limited, and our options aren’t great. 

We need to accept this reality (remembering that ACCEPTING something is definitely not the same thing as LIKING it), suck it up, and get to choosing anyway. 

We cannot construct a life we value, a life worth living, a life that conforms to our values and nudges us toward our goals, if we don’t accept our responsibility to make choices…even when we don’t like the options. 

Very often, however, you’ll see people try to cop out of making choices because they don’t like the options. 

They’ll cite many reasons for why they’re opting out of choosing— most of which come down to some variation of, “it doesn’t matter.” 

They’ll make the argument that their options are SO limited, SO not-ideal, that even if they DO exercise their ability to choose, the ultimate outcome won’t be affected…so why bother? 

It’s a convenient cop out when we’re looking for an excuse to not choose. 

I won’t try to tell you that every choice you make is going to ultimately or overwhelmingly matter in how a situation turns out. That’s manifestly not true. 

I will tell you, however, that it matters a great deal to your emotional health and self-esteem to choose when you have the opportunity. 

Your brain is not dumb. It knows when you’re living on auto-pilot. It can tell when you’re not actively attempting to nudge toward your goals and live your values. 

And while those objectives may not necessarily matter in the immediate external situation— they may not directly affect the outcome of the situation you find yourself in— they do have a tremendous affect on how you feel. 

They impact your level of motivation. 

They impact your level of life satisfaction. 

it’s important not to cop out of our ability and responsibility to make choices not just because we can affect the world around us…but because it will definitely affect the world within us. 

Choosing to not choose is a very reliable way to deepen depression. 

Choosing not to choose is a very reliable way to heighten anxiety. 

Choosing not to choose is a very reliable way to get good at choosing-not-to-choose— that is, it can become a pattern that gets deeper and harder to break out of every time it happens. 

I hear you. It sucks when our choices aren’t great. I wish our choices were always infinite and awesome. 

But even when they’re not, we need to step up. 

For our own mental health and integrity, if nothing else. 

 

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We are not simplistic creatures.

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It’s a mistake to try to oversimplify complex behavior issues— either in ourselves, or in others.

You’re going to see an awful lot of posts on social media these days about why people think violent behavior happens. 

Many of these posts are going to try to refine their hypotheses about why violent behavior happens down to one, or a few, basic ideas— and these attempts are going to be, at the very least, incomplete. 

The fact is, you really can’t boil all the potential causal factors down to a few talking points that are readable in a blog post. The human mechanism is just too complex. 

On top of that, generalizing between people and situations is problematic, because we only have part of each person’s story— and that part we have, we only have through the filter of media reports. 

We don’t have enough information to comprehensively say why some people act out violently with guns. We can perhaps get our brains around some facets of the issue— but to try to throughly understand the question is beyond us, with the information we have. 

When I wrote earlier today about the fact that I believe the saturation of gun violence in popular entertainment is a contributing factor to gun violence that happens in the real world, I was not trying to comprehensively address the root causes of this problem. I was drawing attention to one factor that I believe doesn’t get enough attention— largely because entertainment featuring gun violence is extremely popular and profitable. 

But, as my commenters correctly pointed out, the problem of gun violence is multifaceted, and has layers that range from the cultural, to the personal, to the social, to even the moral to the spiritual. 

While I was not trying to oversimplify, or even simplify the issue, the point was well-taken: behavior is complex, and attempts to “boil it down” are often problematic. 

Such attempts can give us a false sense that we know what’s going on, and what needs to be done. 

This applies not only to the behavior of people who do terrible, violent things out there in the world…but our own behavior, as well. 

We need to remember that we are not simple, straightforward machines. 

Our own behavior has many causes and influences. 

If and when we think we have our own behavior “figured out,” we need to take that as a signal to back up and remember that we’re maybe— probably— missing something. 

The reason why it’s so important to remember that we are complex mechanisms that are acted upon by a lots and lots of influences is because trying to “boil down” our behavior to one or a few basic tenets can lead to frustration and despair when we try to actually do change self-defeating behavior. 

We get frustrated, because we THOUGHT we had our behavior figured out…but applying a straightforward solution to what SEEMED like a straightforward equation isn’t working, much to our chagrin. 

This can lead us to get hopeless and cynical when it comes to trying to change our behavior. 

When you get frustrated in trying to design a behavior plan for yourself, remember that it’s not the case that trying to change your own behavior is hopeless— it’s just that behavior is complex. 

Most of the time, it takes a few attempts to try to design a behavior plan that works. 

There’s a lot of trial and error involved. 

As much as we humans would like to draw perfectly straight, simplistic lines between cause and effect when it comes to motivation and behavior…it usually doesn’t work like that. 

The good news is: over time, with patience and persistence, we usually CAN gather enough data to establish some useful patterns. 

Over time, with patience and persistence, we usually CAN design behavioral solutions that nudge us meaningfully toward our goals and values. 

We just need to keep in mind that we’re not simple, straightforward creatures…and to expect ourselves to be is a recipe for frustration. 

 

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We play a role in gun violence. Yes, us.

 

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This isn’t a political blog. 

I do not have the requisite expertise in government policy to intelligently or usefully opine about what the government can or should do to decrease the odds of things like what happened these last few days, happening in the future. 

Many people think that guns are too readily accessible. Many people think that government has a role to play in making guns less accessible. 

Many other people have strong feelings about the inadvisability of the government disarming civilians to prevent behavior that the vast, vast majority of people who own or have access to guns do not perpetuate. 

I’m sure if many of you look at your social media news feeds right now, you see many people who have very strong opinions on the question. 

I just don’t have the knowledge to speak to these issues, and I do not desire to contribute to the Internet culture of emotional “hot takes.” 

I think these are serious, literal life-and-death issues, and they deserve more thoughtful and informed discussion than I can offer. 

I am, however, a psychologist— which means I have education, training, and experience with human behavior. 

And that is why I can offer the following observation: I cannot believe that, in the discussions that invariably flow from such grotesque events, that so few people seem interested in examining popular culture’s love affair with gun violence, as a powerful contributing factor to these things. 

It has been very well established in the field of psychology that behavioral modeling is a powerful determinant of behavior— especially violent behavior. 

Researchers have been able to demonstrate, with precision and consistency, that both children and adults who are exposed to violent behavioral models are overwhelmingly more likely to exhibit violent behavior themselves. 

We are very, very likely to do as we see done— especially what we see done by role models we consider powerful and who have things we want. 

If one takes even a casual glimpse at popular entertainment in western culture, especially movies— what does one see, over and over and over again? 

The firing of guns. 

Gun violence is so pervasive in movies, especially (but not even exclusively) action movies, that we don’t even give it a second thought. 

In movies, guns are easily accessible, and usually fired without serious on-screen consequences— except that they confer power and autonomy on the characters who are firing them. 

In movies, firing a gun gets you out of a jam. 

In movies, firing a gun threatens your enemies. 

In movies, firing a gun makes a sequence “exciting.” 

In movies, it is rare that characters who are inexperienced with firearms mishandle them to their own detriment— one of the reasons why everyone thinks they can fire a gun is because they’ve seen countless (literally, countless) movie and TV characters do it, essentially every single day they’ve watched TV or seen a movie. 

Whether or not we even LIKE action movies all that much, we ALL have literally thousands upon thousands of images seared into our brains of characters firing guns, usually accompanied by emotion-escalating musical cues. 

What do you think that— all of that— does to the brain of someone who had difficulty with moral decision making, behavioral inhibition, and reality testing? 

As I said a the beginning of this blog: this isn’t about politics. I don’t know what the government should or shouldn’t do about the availability of firearms in the United States. 

But I believe I can confidently opine, as a psychologist, that if we’re serious about really decreasing the chances of this happening again, we need to reevaluate how gun violence is depicted in popular entertainment. 

I have a feeling we won’t do that, though. 

Because movies with gun violence make an awful lot of money. 

And guess who buys tickets to those movies? 

That’s right. We do. 

We create the demand for popular entertainment that saturates our brains with problem-solving, heart-pumping gun violence. 

We are part of the problem. 

We’re not the whole problem— but we do own part of it. 

 

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Our gut instincts are sometimes…well, wrong.

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Sometimes, your gut instinct is wrong. 

I know, I know— many of us have been told, in meme after meme after meme, to “always” trust our gut instinct. 

We’ve been told that “our gut instinct never lies.” 

I wish that was true. 

But, as it turns out, our gut instinct is as susceptible to manipulation, distortion, and trauma as our rational brains are. 

I understand why so many people, especially as they enter recovery, are so hell bent on embracing and validating their gut instincts. 

For many people, it’s a process of reclamation. Many people, especially when they’ve been abused over the course of time, have been gaslit into believing that their gut instincts are always wrong. Understanding that this isn’t the case— that sometimes their gut accurately understands things that their brains aren’t quite ready to accept— can be an empowering experience for them. 

Other people have had the experience of relying on their rational brains too much and ignoring their gut instincts— only realizing too late that their brains can introduce doubt and confusion in situations where gut level decisiveness might be more useful. 

So, I get it. There are definitely good reasons to embrace our gut instinct, and to pay it its due. 

The problem is when people come to OVER-rely on their gut instinct. 

The problem is when people come to think that their gut instinct is “never wrong.” 

The problem is when people lose sight of the fact that their gut instinct is not supposed to be the ONLY tool they rely on for decision-making. 

Our gut instinct is supposed to be A tool to help us evaluate the world. Not THE ONLY tool. 

It’s important for us to remember what happens to our bodies and brains when we’ve been traumatized over the course of time. 

Trauma has a way of shaping our worldview. 

Especially trauma that occurs over time, and in the context of close relationships. 

We come to see the world through a kind of post traumatic lens…and that lens isn’t just limited to our rational brains or decision-making. 

Trauma messes with our gut, too. 

Trauma specifically has a way of mangling what psychologists call our “schemas”— our interlocking systems of belief about the world, ourselves, and the future. 

Our schemas inform everything we think, feel, and do. They’re like the basic structure of the reality we perceive and act on in our heads. 

When trauma has damaged our schemas— i.e., when it has convinced us that we’re no good, that the world is always dangerous, that other people are never to be trusted, that the future holds nothing for us— that damage isn’t just limited to what we consciously think. 

That damage also extends to our unconscious beliefs and attitudes— those things that inform our “gut instinct.” 

When you have a gut feeling about something or someone, it is informed by your schemas…and if you’ve been traumatized or abused, your schemas are likely at least somewhat distorted. 

Understand: none of this is to say that we should never trust or believe our gut instincts. 

To the contrary, our gut instincts often have valuable information for us. 

But that information needs to be understood and acted upon in conjunction with input from other sources— such as our rational, thinking brains, our senses, and reality-testing from other people whom we trust. 

Our guts are not designed to be the only way we make decisions. 

That’s how we get impulsive, emotionally-driven decisions. 

Respect your gut. Listen to your gut. Value your gut. 

But also respect and value its role in your overall collection of decision-making tools. 

 

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