The brain is a wondrous instrument – it builds detailed mental models of how our world functions, storing a dizzying array of information based on historical observations that we’ve made. The purpose of these models, or schemas, is to provide us with a framework for decision making prior to committing to a given course of action.
It allows us to play out a scenario within the comfort of our own minds – it’s a sort of forecasting system, a Dopplar radar for social functions, that is designed to add a degree of predictability to our world. When you’re invited to a party, you quickly analyze the person who invited you, the other known guests, the venue, and any other information to make a quick run-through of the night.
Will it be fun? Will it be my scene? What time will I get home?
Your mind runs a explores simulations and then you make a judgement call whether or not to attend – and, if you do, what you should expect. The problem is, it often ends up being very wrong.
The more knowledge we have about a certain area, the more intricate our analyses become – and this is where we begin to get in trouble. We build elaborate, detailed models of our loved ones. We have reams of data, a concatenation of countless encounters, character traits, and emotional trivia, and we build a sort of mental clone with which to practice.
It’s fascinating, I think, how much of our lives we live within the confines of our mind, interacting with an imaginary representation of a person in our lives.
Jealousy works using this exact mechanism – we imagine the other person behaving inappropriately when we aren’t around and we begin to feel hurt, although no actual transgression has taken place. It’s as logical as being angry at your partner for cheating on you in a dream.
The phenomenon is at play any time you decide against having a conversation with a significant other – whether it is asking them to see a certain movie or discussing the future of your relationship. When you decide not to have the conversation, it means that you’ve mentally role played the situation and determined that it will most likely not end favorably.
And though the conversation was simply an exercise in prediction and never actually occurred, you still harbor a degree of resentment towards the real-life person – despite the fact that it was simply an imaginary exercise with your own mind. The living, breathing person takes the blame for the fictional representation. It is this communication breakdown that decays so many relationships from the inside out.
Now, your prediction may have been entirely accurate – they may react terribly in real life and fulfill your prophecy – but it is unfair, both to you and to the other party, to deny the opportunity of having a genuine discussion. It is better to have a relationship rooted in reality but rife with disagreement than an illusion of compatibility, disguised by a growing foundation of resentment.
I have a friend who wants to move in with her boyfriend, but she says she’s afraid to ask him. Really, it isn’t the question that she’s afraid of. It’s the answer – or, more accurately, one possible answer – no. People delay asking these difficult questions – sometimes for years – for fear of a negative response.
It helps to remember that, in a way, the answer is already written. Postponing these conversations is like waiting to scratch off a lottery ticket – if it’s a losing ticket, no amount of time is going to turn it into a winner. And if someone is going to tell you no, there isn’t much you can do about that, either. Asking the question, therefore, becomes a win-win situation for you – either you get a yes or you get to reevaluate. If you put off the question indefinitely, you’re either wasting valuable time that you could have spent enjoying the path that led from yes, or finding a new path to happiness that came from no. Either one is better than shuffling about in purgatory.
I’ve found that, nine times out of ten, the real life conversation goes much more smoothly than the imagined one. As my friend says, you’ll often realize that you’ve been misusing your imagination to abuse yourself. You’ll be surprised at how reasonable, rational, and insightful many of your conversations will be – and if you find the opposite, perhaps it’s time to move on.
Here’s what I’ll ask of you: the next time you find yourself upset with a friend, family member, or partner, take a step back and separate the facts from the blanks that your mind has filled in for you.
I think you’ll find that the differences that remain are quite a bit more manageable, and your real-world loved ones are quite a bit more friendly than the impostors in your head.