If I have learned anything from personal as well as professional experience as a psychologist, it is that humans have an amazing capacity for self-deception. We can truly spend years in our head – living a virtual life, creating and then destroying dreams, imagining relationships and rejections, attempting all manner of new or desirable acts or goals and then judging ourselves as failures of each one – all without ever having actually acted or spoken a single word because it has all occurred in our heads.
Of course it is important to think and prepare before we act, but we get into trouble because we come to believe that our thinking is the same as doing. For example, let’s say that you are a writer and you wish to publish a short story. You have written and rewritten the story. You’ve allowed others to read and provide constructive feedback and now believe the story is ready for publishing. But in your head, you have submitted this story for publishing so many times and every time you have imagined it as rejected. So, in reality you never actually send the story anywhere, as you already “know” you will fail.
Why would this be? I think it comes back to the power of our imagination. Have you ever feared something, public speaking perhaps, and as you prepared for the presentation you imagined what you feared through repeatedly worrying about the event (i.e., worried about making some type of mistake or becoming so nervous you could barely talk), such that you were not surprised when some version of what you feared actually happened? This is because you rehearsed your fears (i.e., failure) rather than rehearsing your desires (i.e., success).
Research demonstrates what when we use our imagination to vividly picture a scene or situation, particularly as we engage our senses, the body does not know whether we are experiencing it in actuality or only in our imagination! The body will respond very similarly either way. You know this to be true, because we have all had the experience of talking about an upcoming event, one that worries us, and as we are talking about it with a friend or companion, we find that our heart is beating faster, our respiration has increased and we have started to perspire – all while we are safely far away from the imagined event! That is, the imagining of the event can evoke a similar physiological response as actually experiencing the event. We further know that sensory, emotional and cognitive stimulation (in this case, whether to a real or imagined event) is what causes the brain to “hardwire” it or to encode it into our neurons as a registered and remembered experience, thus becoming an influencer of our future experiences.
In this way, what we imagine can become encoded such that it rises to the strength of an actual experience in our neural networks, thus greatly influencing our thoughts, beliefs and emotions about the possibility of success in a future event from one that has never happened at all!!!! This form of self-deception is particularly interesting and potent as it relates to our behavioral patterns and choices because it serves an important function: self-protection. We are attempting to protect ourselves from potentially damaging or hurtful events: rejection by a lover, rejection by a literary agent, embarrassment at giving a poor speech, etc. So we virtually live out these risky situations in our heads to prevent ourselves from real damage.
But wait…the question we have to ask is which one constitutes real damage? Is it better to avoid all potential for social harm, thus relieving anxiety and keeping ourselves “safe” or is it better to take those risky steps toward actually accomplishing our dreams? Good question. If we take the safe route and let our virtual experience keep us locked away from reality, we are guaranteed to fail by default because we never make any actual attempts to accomplish our goals. On the other hand, if we get out of our heads and actually do something that may seem risky in reality, we at least have a chance for success! And then, if we do actually fail…well, we learn to fail better the next time and then fail better yet again, until…at last…we succeed.
And this is the heart of the deception: inaction always means failure, which, ironically we were trying to avoid through inaction….see the catch?
So, if you’ve already failed (by not trying)…then you have nothing to lose, right? So, get out of your head and start participating in real life! The only thing you are risking, really, is SUCCESS!