Tuesday 02 April 2002

So why don’t we pretend?

I used to stop by Salon most days, but since I started blogging I’ve been lucky to get there once a week. Today I took some time off to catch up on one of my favorite Salon features, the Since You Asked (advice to the lovelorn) column by Cary Tennis. I went all the way back to the January 29 installment and began to plod through the letters:

  • 28-year old man doesn’t feel deep emotional connection with 27-year old woman
  • married woman asks if it’s OK to look up an old flame via the Internet
  • depressed woman can’t choose between A, who she’s been seeing for ten years, and B (four years)
  • young man keeps running into lovely, mysterious woman with whom he had a brief affair

Four prosaic problems plus the requisite sensible advice, then suddenly we strike gold.

A woman writes to say she is married to a “sincere, sexy, funny, thoughtful” man who stays at home to raise their two daughters while she pursues her career, calls her to say he loves her, thinks she looks sexy in her red fleece pajamas, cooks, shops, and hangs her delicates out to dry. She loves him, she trusts him, she wants to grow old with him. Perfection, right?


He’s driving her batty because he won’t express an opinion. She’s tired of being told “I don’t know.”

As it happens, Cary Tennis and his wife “have this problem too.” He has opinions but believes they need to be “thought-out and informed.” This “vexes and irritates” his wife. How have they addressed this grave incompatibility?

…expert husband that I am, I have learned to have opinions about things I have no opinion about. I think the haircut is good, very good. I think the dress is excellent. Occasionally, for the sake of authenticity, the dress is not so good and must be changed, in my opinion.

Sometimes, because I am hoping she will find her keys and join me at the door, I do not have an opinion about the apple crumb cake or the new shoes. But I try to come up with something better than a grunt because I know this is not the beginner’s hill, but the expert husband slope; it is always the finals, and I am being scored.

He points out that his wife would not be surprised to learn that he’s been “faking.” She knows he’s an artist who creates things as he goes along. More importantly though, by pretending to have opinions, he has actually developed “informed and well-thought-out opinions” about all manner of things.

This is profoundly useful advice which cuts to the essence of how we learn. By pretending. By ignoring the fact that we don’t know how to do something and choosing to behave as though we did. Children learn in this way. Adults have mostly forgotten how. We convince ourselves that it’s too difficult, that our minds don’t work that way, that we lack the physical aptitude, that we need to take a course… when actually all that’s required is the mindset that says: “I know I don’t know how to do this, but if I carefully observe someone who does know, and then imitate them, I’ll be able to fool myself into doing it too.”

If there’s no-one to model, you might need to imagine how an expert might do it, or read a book to get started. The important thing is to pretend.

It’d be great to find out if the woman with the perfect/flawed husband was clever enough to lie to herself. In a case like this, it takes two smart people to create a convincing illusion and Mrs Tennis deserves at least half the credit, probably more. My instinct tells me that Mrs I’m Not Satisfied is too attached to an unattainable ideal to accept such a pragmatic solution, particularly one that would require her to pretend—for a while at least, perhaps for the rest of her life—that she believed her husband’s newly found opinions were sincere, even when they weren’t.

Reading Cary Tennis’s marvellous reply reminded me of an anecdote in Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s Frogs into Princes. Bandler and Grinder developed a therapeutic method called NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) by modeling the three best therapists of the seventies: Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson. Frogs into Princes is a transcript of a workshop Bandler and Grinder taught together and it’s difficult to tell sometimes who is speaking. It doesn’t really matter, since at that time they spoke with one voice:

The last time that I went to see Milton Erickson, he said something to me. And as I was sitting there in front of him, it didn’t make sense. Most of his covert metaphors have made… eons of sense to me. But he said something to me which would have taken me a while to figure out. Milton said to me “You don’t consider yourself a therapist, but you are a therapist.” And I said “Well, not really.” He said “Well, let’s pretend … that you’re a therapist who works with people. The most important thing …. when you’re pretending this … is to understand … that you are really not…. You are just pretending…. And if you pretend really well, the people that you work with will pretend to make changes. And they will forget that they are pretending … for the rest of their lives. But don’t you be fooled by it.” And then he looked at me and he said:


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I agree. Let's pretend. Sometimes I like to pretend I'm a writer. I even pretend that what I write will make a difference.
And sometimes, many years later, an ex-student will write and he will pretend it did make a difference in his life.
Then, for a moment, at least, we both pretend we're happy.
Perhaps we can all pretend we're building a better world in the magical kingdom of blogdom.

Posted by Loren Webster on 2 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I'm always going back and forth on Bandler and Grinder and NLP. I'm all for pretending. If not for pretending we'd never get to do anything we hadn't already done. But sometimes I start wondering whether the specific brand of pretending in NLP gets us anywhere. But I really like that Erickson quote which makes me want to go back and look at B&G's Patterns 1 or Time for Change again. (Look at that! I'm slipping right into Ericksonian run-on rambly grammar.)

Posted by Abie Hadjitarkhani on 2 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Hey Jon, Nothing to do with this post, but I haven't been around here for a while (work pressure, and lack of time, nothing to do with your weblog) and I just wanted to say that I think it looks great!

Posted by Rogi on 2 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Hey Jonathon, great post! This has really crystalised some thoughts I've had floating around for a few years. Thank you.

Posted by David Golding on 4 April 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour