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Acting “As If”

I glanced at the clock as I turned out the lights and shut my eyes, exhausted — 10:30 p.m.

As I often do before falling asleep, I reflected on moments that stood out in the day that was ending. I thought about an interaction I had with my 5-year-old, Emma, while I was doing laundry. She wanted to wear her tutu dress. The problem was that the dress had just come out of the washing machine and was sopping wet. In response to my suggestion that she patiently wait for her tutu dress to dry before she put it on, she had adamantly stated, “I don’t want to wait, because I am NOT feeling patient!”

In the world of behavior change, people often talk about acting as if as a common prescription to behaving like the person you want to become. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the aphorism is to fake it ‘til you make it.

The idea is that if you want to behave in a particular way, you start by acting that way. Thinking I had stumbled upon a teaching opportunity with Emma, I had talked with her about the idea of practicing being patient as a way to strengthen her skills in patience. Emma had nodded in understanding and then scampered off to the playroom tutu-free. Five minutes later, I had heard her loudly exclaim, “I’m trying to practice being patient, and it’s not working! I. AM. STILL. WANTING. MY. PINK. TUTU.”

As I tried to fall asleep, I started thinking about how practice is what builds confidence and skillfulness in any behavior we are wanting to strengthen. My mind kept wandering. Keeping my eyes closed, I turned my pillow over and flopped my head back onto it, briefly peeking in the direction of the clock to see the time: 11:17. Sighing, I turned over yet again, feeling impatient, wanting sleep to come. I was trying to practice being patient, and it wasn’t working, and I. AM. STILL. VERY. TIRED, I thought.

As I finally drifted off to sleep, it occurred to me that I had spent the past 47 minutes acting as if I was a person who was sleeping — lying still, shutting my eyes. Pretending to be asleep is the way we help ourselves get to sleep every night, a skill that requires patience and practice.

Maybe tomorrow Emma and I can continue to work on the patience thing together.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.