Imagine That! This Emotional Life - PBS

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Happiness / Blog

 Sara Kenney, L.C.S.W.

Sara Kenney, L.C.S.W.'s Bio

Sara Kenney is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has practiced analytically-oriented psychotherapy in Los Angeles for 15 years.

Imagine That!


Take a moment to think of something you’re really looking forward to: an event, a vacation, a visit.  Can’t you practically see yourself lying on the beach or strolling in the shade, or tucking into that meal at the restaurant where you have a reservation?

Now take a moment to think about something you dread. Some of us might dread a meeting we have to attend, a class for which we are not prepared, or a confrontation we fear is brewing between us and a friend or workmate.  Others of us may have become so avoidant of situations that cause us discomfort that we can’t call up an example because we have skillfully arranged our lives to hold as little to dread as possible.   (Don’t count on this as a technique, however – life has a way of supplying us with opportunities when we least expect them.)

Here’s the good and bad news: research shows that we tend both to overestimate how much we’re going to enjoy something AND how awful something is going to be.  Why is that? In short, it’s because the imagined experience and the lived experience are never the same thing.

On the most mundane level, this means that even if you can come up with a pretty fair idea of what it will be like to finish reading this article, step away from the computer and walk down the hall – for example – you still don’t know exactly what will happen next. 

More significantly, it is our fantasies of what we feel “sure” is going to happen that can be problematic for us.  I was talking about this concept recently with a friend of mine who said, “But sometimes when people worry about something, it’s a way of working out what could go wrong in order to prepare in case it does go wrong.”  Yes, or even to prevent it from going wrong, I added.  Being conscious that you are working through possibilities in order to forestall problems from occurring is different from believing you know that something is going to go wrong and then making choices based on that presumption.  I would never want you to go against your instincts – that is, if you don’t want to go sky-diving, don’t go! But a blind date that you fear will be a disaster actually has numberless possible outcomes.  The only certainty is that you don’t know what it will actually be like. 

Of course, we all anticipate our history.  If you never had a good experience at a certain restaurant, it would be reasonable to balk if a friend suggests that you meet there again.  If the food has never been good, there is no reason to assume it will be good this time.  But what if you went to that restaurant open to the possibility that the food may be bad, but the company may be good? What if the restaurant has changed hands since the last time you were there, or you simply haven’t ordered what they do best? While it would be perfectly fine to let your friend know that you aren’t fond of that place and would like to meet somewhere else, it might also make sense to find out what draws her there.  And then, maybe, to meet her there, with neither dread nor expectation, but just open to what the situation will bring.

I am not suggesting, here, that you should ignore your feelings or try to talk yourself out of them, but rather that you be aware that feelings are not the same thing as facts.  “I feel clumsy and self-conscious when I go to a yoga class” is not the same as “I can’t do yoga.”  The former is an acknowledgement of feelings from which you might go on to reassure yourself, “… but I bet a lot of people feel that way.  I’m going to go to yoga and see how it goes.” 

“I can’t do yoga,” on the other hand, is a phrase that might lead you then to think, “so there’s no point in putting myself through the torture of going to a class.”  How do you know the class will be torture? Or, more to the point, is it possible that the way you treated yourself throughout a previous class exacerbated the negative experience?

To use our example of, “I can’t do yoga,” I might say, “Let’s find out!” meaning that if yoga is something you wish you could do, try it and see.  If you believe you aren’t able to do yoga because you tried it once and the class wasn’t right for you, I might observe that we don’t have enough information yet to draw a conclusion.  There are so many variables: the teacher, the style of yoga, your own projections (for example, thinking a teacher doesn’t like you when in fact, who knows what the teacher is thinking?). 

When I was first starting out as a therapist, a terribly depressed client told me how dark and lonely a place the world is.  She said that wherever she went, no one ever smiled at her.  What we know now is that for the depressed person, this is a reality.  The face they show to the world is sad or even blank.  People tend to mirror the expressions they see, so the depressed person may have unconsciously and unwittingly drawn from people the very facial expressions that confirmed her belief of the world.   Conversely, the person who walks around wreathed in smiles tends to see smiles around her, confirming her world view that all is well.  At all times, we are impacting our environment as our environment is impacting us.  Therefore, when you walk into a room “knowing” you’re going to be miserable, perhaps you have a hand in creating that outcome for yourself. 

Have you ever had the experience of getting in your car to go somewhere, and almost before you know it, reached your destination? Chances are you were caught up in a fantasy.  Part of your conscious mind was tracking your driving experience, while the rest of your attention was turned inward as you relived a memory, projected what you believe is going to happen next, or rehashed a conversation.  A client of mine once described how, as a child riding as a passenger in a car, she would become frightened watching an adult in her life make hand gestures and silently move his mouth as this man unconsciously acted out some sort of argument or altercation.   The client knew that whatever fantasy the adult was engaged in as he drove would translate into trouble for the actual people around him.  That’s because while the man knew he was in an imaginary conversation, the feelings that that imaginary conversation stirred up were very real.  Therefore, when the man emerged from the fantasy into the real world, he would bring the rapid heartbeat, tightened muscles and angry feelings with him, and with those, a virtual guarantee that his next interaction would be ugly.

We all do some version of that.  We create a very real world in our own minds and then respond as if that world were our present reality.  There’s nothing wrong with fantasy and day dreams, but we need to be careful that we don’t merge what we imagine with what may actually be happening around us, or unfolding before us. It’s an eye-opening experience to see what happens when you allow yourself not to “know.” A wide world of possibility and opportunity is out there!