Acting “As If”

The immensely influential philosopher William James wrote “If you want a quality, act ‘as if’ you already had it. “Acting as if” is one of the most important techniques taught by the world’s most successful behavioral modification program, Alcoholics Anonymous. Whatever your feelings or impressions of AA are, its success in fundamentally changing deeply engrained behavior for countless individuals is unquestionable. Depending on your individual personality and how committed you become to the principle, “acting as if” can have anything from a modest to an (eventually) profound impact on your life.

There are several benefits to “acting as if,” but two stand out for me:

First, it allows you to investigate reasons for the feelings engendered by your normal, NOT “acting as if” pattern. There’s often a very good emotional and often unconscious reason why a particular action that most people can undertake calmly is intimidating or frightening to you. Let’s say you’re someone who doesn’t have as much confidence as you’d like. You would select a relatively low-risk action that might normally create so much anxiety that it would prevent you from undertaking it. Examples might be introducing yourself to someone you find attractive (perhaps someone at the office or the gym), or asking your boss for an overdue performance evaluation. Decide to try the “acting as if” technique as a one time experiment. First, notice what feelings come up for you as you contemplate and embark on the action. Tightness? Fluttering? A discomfort in the pit-of-the-stomach? Then try to think of where and when you first felt those feelings. You may discover a link to an early experience that was scary to you as a child, but that could have been handled by an adult. With this realization it may be easier for the adult you to face this originally scary undertaking.

Second, if you are willing to repeatedly “act as if” with a particular situation, you will start to gain experience and perspective that will make it easier and easier to handle. You may be surprised that things go better than you expected, which would in and of itself be encouraging. Or you may learn where some of the stumbling blocks are and afterwards devise strategies for avoiding them (e.g. in the case of someone with low self-confidence learning to introduce him/herself, it might be that it’s easier to do so in a setting where others are not observing).

“Acting as if” works for many people because it’s easier for them to act a role (Miss Former Wallflower, Mr. Able-to-Talk-to-My Children-about-Difficult-Subjects) than it is to be that way in real life.

But what if there isn’t a trace of the actor in your blood? How can you actually develop this technique? First, practice alone. The very best method would be to record yourself (audio and ideally video as well). Then play back the recording and notice what you liked and didn’t like about what you see and hear. Write those things down, and then go through the exercise again. Limit yourself to two times a day, but try to do it every day for a week. If you’re a bit bolder, you can “perform” in front of a friend or your spouse – someone you genuinely trust. Ask them for feedback (it probably wouldn’t hurt to remind them to be gentle with it).

I urge you to try “Acting as If” – things might actually turn out better than you think, but even if at first they don’t, you’ll be able to learn from the experience.