Where's the Bear?

Where's the Bear?

by Susan S. Hardy
Marriage and family therapist Susan Hardy explains the usefulness of "acting as if" in changing emotions and behavior.
Filed Under: Anxiety


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In an early chapter in my general psychology textbook's discussion of behavior, it said, "I see a bear; therefore I run." That seemed sort of obvious to me. The next line went on —"I run; therefore I see a bear." The more I thought about that, the less I got it. So I asked my professor. He said that it was probably the most important thing I would ever learn in psychology and that I should think about it until I understood. It's taken many years but he was right. It's an enormously important metaphor. Let me show you how it works.

If you act frightened, you'll soon find something to be frightened of.
If you act frightened, you'll soon find something to be frightened of. 

Acting As If

Mary and John were considering divorce. Her trip through menopause had coincided with the end of his career and they quarreled about everything. The content of their bickering wasn't as important as the tone. "You're wrong," was the first response out of either of them. Each of them saw the other as critical and demeaning. Even after many sessions of therapy, they continued to demean each other.

On a Tuesday at their regular appointment, I asked them to act "as though" they liked each other a lot. They looked at me as though I was crazy. "I'm serious," I said. "Move your chairs closer together and hold hands while we talk. After you leave here, go for an ice cream cone and look at each other with soft, loving eyes as you lick your sweets. I'd like you to keep that kind of pretending up until you come back here on Friday."

"But," Mary protested, "that's like lying."

"Yup," I said. "It's called acting."

On Friday, they came in laughing at a private joke. The animosity was gone and they were excited. "Maybe there is hope for us," said John. "I'd just about given up. Why did pretending work?"

"If you act frightened, you'll soon find something to be frightened of," I replied. "If you act angry like you and Mary were, you turn each other into enemies."

Finding Something to Fear

Another application of this metaphor is what happened after 9-11. We were frightened and the enemy was, for the time being, unknown and unseen. When people feel afraid, they tend to look for something to explain their feelings, seeing an enemy or danger around every turn. Anything to somehow justify the fear, even when there is no bear. Wars are begun over such things.

This is the same principle we put to use upon walking into a scary situation: taking a deep breath, standing tall, holding our heads high. Often, if we do this, our anxiety vanishes and we find there is no "bear" there.

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Susan S. Hardy Susan Hardy has been a Licensed MFT for 31 years and in private practice for most of those. She has served on the Board of her local CAMFT chapter for 17 years, and is Clinical Director of an agency that serves homeless and severely mentally ill. In addition, she was the Executive Director of Ventura County Jewish Family Service and helped start and staff a school for high school students who didn't fit in at traditional public schools. Contact Susan.