A Powerful Tool That Can Change Your Life

horse-chestnut-202482_1280As summer begins and many of us would like take off our shoes and cast aside cast aside the shadows of winter – I’d like to revisit the subject of a blog I wrote last fall.  The blog discussed the extent to which the practice of a negative thought can impact the outcomes of our lives.

“A horse chestnut that had hung onto a branch through the summer recently fell onto the hood of my truck and reminded me of the blog as did news that several friends are facing changes in their lives that have the potential to carve away at their feelings of self-confidence and self-worth.

I have suggested  that as a way of moving forward in our lives it is often necessary to reword the inner scripts that hammer away at our spirits, weaken our resistance, and in some cases keep us from the very things we want in our lives.

One of the powerful ways of impacting the outcomes to which we aspire is to act as if the thing we want to accomplish within ourselves is already true. Since we tell stories about our lives every day it is of value to consider formulating stories that evoke a sense of confidence in ourselves and that facilitate our growth.

There are few mysteries to what people want. People want to be loved.  They want power, money and security.  People want health, skills, a sense of control over their lives and they want to feel good.

People want to feel less angry, more self-confident, less sad, less jealous, less fearful and less anxious.

Though I often talked about it with the clients I worked with as a therapist, I was never so convinced of the power of acting as if myself as when within my own life – after the damage caused by my cardiac arrest and subsequent CPR – I had to adapt to the loss of part of my eyesight, damage time-of-year-98357_640to the watershed portion of my cortex which processes my ability to understand the passage of time, and additionally, a form of dyslexia that makes some words occasionally inaccessible as I speak and write.

For the two years that followed my event I had to pretend I was okay, I had to act as if I didn’t feel damaged, different and handicapped in a variety of ways.  I would never say this wasn’t hard – this acting as if, this trying to pose as my former undamaged self. Often what isn’t good for us is easier to embrace than the difficult work of change.

The author Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” What we label as real is often just a choice we have made or a reality which we have created.  Feeling powerless for instance is a real feeling but not necessarily the truth of a situation.  Feeling powerless does not mean that we don’t have power. We can feel damaged, doubtful, sorry for ourselves and/or fearful in situations that do not warrant these reactions. We make choices in our lives about what stories we will believe about ourselves and what stories we want to convey to others.

Theater marqueeActing as if is a modern phrase similar to Aristotle’s notion that acting virtuous will make one virtuous.  It is an old concept often called “faking it until we make it,” a process of convincing ourselves through conscious actions that we are already are what we want to become.

In addition to discontinuing the practice of negative thoughts, acting as if is another way to distance ourselves from the self-fulfilling prophecies of our doubts and our fears.  Telling ourselves and others, for examples, that we are afraid of flying or talking in public or that we can’t tolerate someone, is more likely to increase the intensity of those emotions when we are in those situations; more likely to make our beliefs true.

On the other hand going through the challenges we face as if we were confident in facing them and dealing with them – when done often enough – can significantly increase the likelihood that our confidence within challenging situations will become real.  Instead of dwelling on the negatives – which typically makes us feel worse – by acting as if  things were how we would like them to be allows us to focus on the positive and takes our attention away from what we feel is wrong or missing.

iStock_000021035589SmallChildren act as if all of the time; they skill-build by acting and practicing empowerment.  We call it play.  It is something far different to children than play and somewhere along the line we abandon it as being of value.

The first step in acting as if is to identify a feeling or a behavior that we would like to be different.  Next comes the task of making a mental list of what observable behaviors would we find in a person who had the qualities we’d like to achieve.

Someone might pick, for example, their desire to feel happy in a chosen activity in which they currently find themselves unhappy. They would begin a process of acting as if by asking themselves, “How would a confident, happy, relaxed and self-assured person in that situation look?  How would a happy person posture and walk? How would they sound; what facial expressions would they make? How would they react to others?  What specific, observable behaviors would they display?”

theatre-96714_1280By thinking about the behaviors of someone who is happy or confident in a situation – things like smiling, increasing the assertiveness of our gestures, making interested eye contact, standing tall, walking with one’s head up, etc. – we can begin to imagine what behaviors we could begin to practice.

The horse chestnut falling on my truck the other day reminded me that during the period that I struggled with my fears about partial blindness and cognitive handicaps, I carried a horse chestnut as a talisman in my pocket.  The chestnut served as a reminder of what I was trying to accomplish by acting as if I was okay. A talisman is essentially an object an individual believes contains certain magical properties, a charm of sorts.  Believing it kept him from having arthritis my grandfather carried a horse chestnut in his pocket all of the time.  I remember watching him slowing consider and polish its surface between the tips of his gnarled and twisted fingers, fingers that at times that were not very useful, but fingers that he never complained about. I found a horse chestnut in the autumn that followed my event and I decided to carry it around as reminder that I needed to keep moving forward with confidence and determination in the face of my doubts and my fears.  chestnut-10468_1280The mahogany seed now sits in a dish by my bathroom sink.  It is a daily reminder that there will always be challenges that can be tackled by imaging a life on the other side of the challenge and acting as if that life is already happening.

Acting as if can lead to experiences of success and even small successes are a great way to undo the assumption that we will always fail, that we will always be afraid, always be doubtful or always be unhappy.  After a while, the need to act if fades away.

We don’t have to act like frightened people, shy people, people with no talent, hurt people, heart patients, doubtful people, old people, people without skills, rejected people or people unhappy with our relationships. There are other things we can come to believe about ourselves.

What is there to lose by standing up straight, acting calm, as if something doesn’t hurt, looking people in the eyes and walking with confidence?  What is there to lose by feeling we are okay, that we are a person of worth, that we feel confident and that we have talent?  What is there to lose in believing that a horse chestnut or some other object can serve as a powerful reminder that we can act our way towards a goal?

We can rewrite our stories.We can become what we believe. The choices are already within us.”

 “That which you think becomes your world.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                             Richard Matheson

Fred Swan

Fredrick Swan is an artist and an author whose career has encompassed years of working as a child and family counselor, an individual therapist and serving as a field instructor at a graduate school of social work. Aware that he is one of the few people on earth who has lived to explore the meaning of their own death in the context of their life, he is currently writing a blog to inspire others to reimagine their lives. His artwork has been shown in the Northwest for a number of years, has appeared in two seasons of a television series, a movie and is in collections of people living in the United States and Europe. Fredrick writes and paints beside a creek just outside the diverse river port city of Portland, Oregon. The father of four, his art work and blog can be found at www.fredrickswan.com. “Parentheses – A Memoir of My Life Before, During, and After My Death” is available on Amazon where you can read a preview of the book and its reviews.