Updated: Aug 2, 2018
Suspending disbelief can be therapeutic.
Years ago, while working with a client struggling with a specific issue, I suggested that she suspend disbelief, and simply try what I was encouraging her to do in an effort bring about a resolution in her situation.
“Suspend disbelief?” she snorted. “How does one do that?”
Actually, we all ‘suspend disbelief’ when we watch the Marvel or DC comics hero movies. Instead of falling about laughing and pointing out all the impossible stuff happening on the screen, we willingly fall into a world where humans fly and men become giant green Purveyors of Destruction. We suspend disbelief when we fall into the fantasy world of any good fiction series. We have suspended disbelief when we enjoy a spirited discussion about the merits of the House of Gryffendor as opposed to the House of Hufflepuff (no one wants be House of Slytherin, right?). These places (Hogwarts) don’t exist, and to have discussion about them is to ‘believe the unbelievable.’
I would suggest that this behavior also happens in other situations. We suspend disbelief when we engage in fantastical thinking about life. That man who has been disrespectful, abusive, violent, or unfaithful in the past will be something different today …and maybe if not today, then at some undisclosed future point will miraculously become a viable, worthwhile partner. Or, that friend that has demonstrated over and over again that she is only User Friendly… if you are usable in some way, she’s friendly. As soon as you need something from her – company, emotional support, a ride to the airport – she’s busy, unavailable, or even rude. We suspend disbelief when we completely ignore what’s observable or experiential, and continue to act as if the fantasy we’ve concocted in our heads is actually reality.
On some deeply felt gut level we understand what we’re doing but we do it anyway because we aren’t prepared to accept reality.
‘Suspending’ anything means to put it into limbo. To put that thing on hold; cease operation; temporarily disable. To hang a thing. So back to my client – I asked her to suspend disbelief; to put on hold that core belief of inadequacy and “…believe the unbelievable.”
I suggested she “act this week like you’re priceless. Unique. Irreplaceable. Your worth is incalculable, as it is for every other individual on this planet. Act as if you have the brains, the strength, the smarts, the wisdom, and the resources to meet this week’s challenges. Act as if you are not diminished standing next to anyone else. Act as if your voice has the same weight as everyone else in the room, and exactly the same weight as the person who is mistreating you. Act as if you matter in your own life. Walk with your head high. Respond to what people actually say, and actually do, rather than to the fantasy script in your head.”
For a week.
Here’s my deal: I think we have trouble because we make Others’ behavior about us. That guy who is disrespectful, rude, and abusive? That friend who isn’t really a friend? On some deep level we believe one of two things – we have done/are doing something that justifies the outrageous behavior, or we believe at a core level that we don’t deserve any better. These two scenarios play out over and over in my office in the context of any relationship in which my client is treated as less than, or worse, is being abused. Partners, family, friends, bosses… it doesn’t matter the actual relationship context.
We make life difficult when we have a core belief that says we aren’t worthy of respect, kindness, compassion, grace, honor… (insert anything good here), and we compound that error by personalizing the behavior of others. Research data says that rarely is an individual actually targeting others by their behavior. I regularly tell clients, “Before you decide that Joe/Jane Doe was deliberately being nasty/rude/ignorant/cranky/uncooperative [insert negative adjective] to you, think about other reasons for his/her behavior. Maybe her shoes are too tight. His tie is choking him. She had a fight with her husband this morning. He got a reprimand from his boss today. S/He did not get out of bed this morning thinking, ‘How can I ruin ___________'s day.’
It’s not about you, so don’t make it that way.”
Could you do it? Could you act as if you matter in your own life? Could you ruthlessly disconnect the actions/words of others from your sense of Self? Make the behavior of others about them and not about you? Suspend disbelief and believe the unbelievable. For a week.
You might be very surprised at the outcome.
P.S. I am sorted Ravenclaw. You?
Dr. Susannah-Joy Schuilenberg, RPC, MPCC-S, DAAETS, ACS