Every once in a while someone hands me a phrase that changes my life. Sometimes it’s a new way of looking at things or a distilled concept wrapped up in a way that lets me carry it around and brandish it when needed. My dad recently gave me one of these which fits both of these categories and has changed my life.
I was talking to him about my difficulties in opening conversations with women I find attractive but yet don’t know. (I’m guessing most of you guys out there have had this experience.) Suppose you’re at a party and see a gorgeous woman: what’s your first response? Probably something along the lines of wanting to interact with her (I’ll leave that vague to cover the various possibilities). Then what do you do? For me, the answer was, unfortunately, to start to talk myself out of it, coming up with reasons why she doesn’t look like she’d want to talk to me. Maybe she’s texting on her phone, so I wouldn’t want to interrupt, it’s probably important, or maybe I can’t think of anything funny to say, and I wouldn’t want to make a bad impression… I could go on and on (and usually do), but you get the idea. So what’s the phrase which helps me catch and change this then?
“You’re misusing your imagination to abuse yourself.”
That’s it. Pretty simple right? And very true. Back to the above situation, I actually have no idea what could possibly be going on in her head. I don’t even know her. Why then am I supposing that she’d be offended or turned off by me? I’m anxious and defending by projecting thoughts and habits from within myself onto her. Why the hell am I doing this to myself? Why don’t I flip things around an imagine the best case scenario? Suppose I walk up to her and just say “hi”. Since I’m just imagining things, why not imagine that she responds by looking me in the eye, grabbing my jacket and pulling me in for some making out.
Start to attend to your anxiety and habitual ways of dealing with it. Work on midfulness of creating conversations in your head or when you’re stopping yourself because you think someone else may say or do something, or maybe you’re worried something they’ve done was because of you. That brings us to our first headline.
Separate self from the other:
Once you catch yourself doing this, stop, get a piece of paper and a pen, and draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper (or in your head if you don’t have one). On one side list the things you know for certain because you’ve observed them in yourself or the world. On the other side, write down all of the things that you’re imagining. Are you using your imagination to come up with doomsday scenarios? Probably.
Instead, cross that all out and decide what you want to do and that you’re going to make it happen. Flip you paper over and user your mind to come up with the how for that. Figure out a plan and then execute. You may run into roadblocks, but they’ll be real, not in your head. Then you can deal with reality. This brings us to the next headline.
Without accepting reality, none of this will work. We need to be able to understand and react to reality without applying negative filtering from out punitive superegos. We function most ideally when we’re operating on facts. They won’t always be what we want, but viewing them without applying negative self-talk is hugely beneficial.
We also need to able to admit flaws in ourselves and others and accept that some things are out of our control. Back to my example of meeting women. Imagine that some poor young woman’s dog has just died and she’s gone to the pub to drink a pint. I may be the perfect man for her on any other day, but she won’t care today, she’s mourning her dog. That’s a hard reality. I won’t know about her dog and anguish until I try to interact, so I shouldn’t stop myself, nor need I later on try to come up with manufactured reasons that I’ve “failed”.
In fact, look at that ugly word, “failed” — is that a good thing to do to myself? Did I fail, or did I try and get less than what I wanted yet learn something? Accepting that failure is part of life and learning is a whole other topic, but certainly one worth trying to recognize.
Shut down the superego:
Once we’re started to recognize our imagination abuse (or the punitive superego I mentioned above if you want to sound scholarly) we then have to stop it. For me, trying to separate what I control from what I don’t and accepting facts without letting myself tint them is the best way to do this. Once I’ve done that, I’m free to use my imagination to come up with something to say (like “hi” works well) or to solve the actual obstacles that are in my way (my own anxieties, for one). I might even use my imagination to create a best case expectation to talk myself up and try to relieve some anxiety that may be arising what the situation I’m in.
I owe a great deal of gratitude to this phrase, and I hope that it helps you lead a better, freer life too. I’m certainly still working on my own internal demons, but I’ve gotten better and will continue to do so. There are so many great things to do in the world, fantastic people to meet and terrific places to see, that we can’t afford to let our own old habits hold us back. The only thing holding us back should be reality, and we should be doing our damnest to move forward in spite of it. Onwards.
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