Duck Wisdom: Adler’s “Act As If”

During a summer break in college, I had a clerical job at my university. I knew no one who worked in the office. I was also the only person under the age of 25, which, for reasons I can’t remember, was a big deal to me. At the time, I believed I was socially inept and boring, sure that no one would want to talk to me. I was destined to spend my summer in isolation, filing papers at my makeshift desk by the soda machine.

Here is the layout, and here is the path I initially used to get to my desk.

Chamber of IsolationI could sneak in, unnoticed by the people I was positive did not want to notice me. And indeed, many of my coworkers who took a soda break were surprised to find a human being lurking in the corner. I was the soda room troll.

TrollI didn’t like being the troll, and I wondered whether I could change things. I started to question my assumptions: how did I know that people at the office didn’t want to talk to me? My belief that no one would like me was a self-fulfilling prophecy: I acted sullen and withdrawn because I thought people believed I wouldn’t be fun to talk to, and yeah, who wants to talk to sullen and withdrawn girl?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I borrowed an Adlerian concept: “Act As If.” In an experiment, I decided to pretend that everyone in the office liked me and that they actually looked forward to seeing me. That was it. That was the entire change.

Office Layout2Note the new flight path. I made a tour of the office every time I walked in and stopped to say hello at every open door. One or two people gave off trollish vibes of their own, but most were receptive and seemed happy to see a smiling face. And why wouldn’t they? I was universally adored, and my presence brightened the dreary, fluorescent-lit halls. Okay, so the “attitude adjustment” did not give me an instant case of narcissism. But I was more outgoing and pleasant to be around; people started to take breaks and visit me. Or at least, they chatted for a little bit longer when they grabbed a soda. The soda room troll was dead; the happiness soda fairy was born.

My first clinical supervisor, Dr. Norm Gysbers, introduced the concept of “Act As If,” to me and my fellow practicum students. We had never seen clients before, and we were green. We had a year of classroom education on the science and practice of therapy, but it felt as if we had learned nothing, and I was fifty-percent sure I might spontaneously human combust during my first session.

Dr. Gysbers asked us to “Act As If” we were experienced therapists, ready to collaborate with our clients to help them reach their goals. It wasn’t about faking expertise (we had been trained) or pretending we knew everything about the client’s life (we didn’t and therapists never do). It was about walking into the room “as if” we had the skills to help someone.

Catch Me If You CanWe could “act as if” because we did have the skills to help, we just weren’t confident in them yet. We could discuss our fears in group supervision, but in the therapy room, we wanted clients to feel confident they were getting helpful services. And because we had training and received appropriate supervision, we were providing helpful services. Not perfect services, but helpful services.

Which brings me to duck wisdom. Ducks appear to be gliding effortlessly on the surface of a pond, but underneath the water, their legs are paddling furiously.This is often a useful analogy for avoiding social comparison: people whose lives look easy and effortless on the surface may experience turmoil we can’t see.

DuckBut we can also use this analogy any time we try something new, whether we’re starting a new job, learning a new skill, or trying not to act like a soda room troll. It can be helpful to “act as if” on the surface even if we’re not sure how things are going to work out. Self-efficacy–the belief that we can do something, like play guitar or practice therapy–comes with practice and effort. But until our sense of self-efficacy increases, we would do well to “act as if” we know what we’re doing. Not in a bratty, “know-it-all” way, but in a hopeful, I’m-here-to-learn-but-I-have-some-skills way. Hard work takes care of the rest.

Hopefully, you have friends, family, or a therapist who you can talk to about the struggles below the surface, but you’re not a fraud if you “act as if.” It’s just a necessary step from inexperience to experience, not knowing to knowing.


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