An aquarium tank was divided in half by placing a see-through, glass partition in the middle. One side of the tank housed a school of small fish, the other, a single, hungry piranha. After countless attempts by the piranha to attack and eat the fish on the other side of the partition, it eventually learned that all attempts were futile. So, at last, it settled down, acquiesced, and stopped trying. At this point, the glass divider was slowly removed, without disturbing the water. Although the school of fish was fed on their side of the tank, the piranha wasn’t fed at all. The days and weeks passed until the piranha starved to death.
We are like that hungry piranha. It’s not a school of fish that we’re chasing, but our hopes and dreams, our goals and aspirations, our plans and good intentions. But somehow our progress gets blocked and we run into barriers so often, we finally give up. We may not physically die, but a part of us does. Our potential, the person we could have been, withers and dies as we settle for the mediocre. The barrier that separates us from our dreams is not a glass partition, but our self-limiting beliefs.
The things we were told in childhood led us to believe we were not worthy or capable of getting what we want. Not possessing critical thinking at such an early age, we could not question what we were told. If we were called stupid, lazy, bad, useless, we had no choice but to accept it. Now, decades later, with those limiting beliefs firmly entrenched, we find ourselves failing to reach our potential.
There are nearly 5,000 books written on the subject of limiting beliefs. They all agree about the horrible harm they cause and offer dozens of techniques to eliminate these self-imposed barriers. These techniques, however, vary in effectiveness and take time to study, practice, and master. There must be a better way.
In fact, there is a better way. And it’s not new, for one and a quarter centuries ago, the brilliant American psychologist, philosopher, and educator William James taught us the Act As If principle. In his own words, “If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” That is, if you’re shy and want to become confident, act as if you are confident and you will become so. Simple isn’t it? Perhaps so, but James was so far ahead of his time that for decades his simple and powerful technique was overlooked or ignored by most experts.
It was widely understood that our behavior is governed by our sensations, thoughts, and emotions. For example, I feel cold (sensation), so I put on a sweater (behavior), or I think my girlfriend is cheating on me (thought) so I get angry (emotion) and confront her (behavior). In other words, our sensations, thoughts, and emotions supply the reason or motive for our action.
Now, where William James was ahead of mainstream experts, was that he saw that the links between thoughts, feelings (sensations and emotions), and behavior were circular, or worked in either direction. That is, not only do thoughts and feelings cause behavior, but our behavior causes thoughts and feelings. It is from this premise that the Act As If principle was derived.
Let’s take a look at an example to get a better understanding how the principle operates. Tom is a timid man. For example, when being served in a restaurant, if the service is less than satisfactory, he is too timid to speak up. He’s been that way for 30 years. But recently, a friend of his convinced Tom to join him in attending a seminar called Keys to Transforming Your Life. In the seminar, Tom learned about the Act As If principle, which the Seminar Leader called the Fake It ‘Till You Make It strategy.
Well, here was Tom in a restaurant. He ordered a steak medium-done, but what the waiter brought to the table was a badly burned steak. The waiter set down the steak; turned around and started to leave. But Tom suddenly blurted out, “Ex-ex-excuse me…” His face turned red and Tom wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers. The waiter approached him and said, “Is something wrong?”
“Ye-Ye-Yes,” said Tom as he pushed the steak toward, the waiter. It is burnt. Ta-ta-take it back.”
Guess what? The waiter apologized, brought back a properly cooked steak, and gave Tom a free bowl of soup to make up for the extra time Tom had to wait.
Tom got what he wanted and began the process of transforming his life by acting as if he had the confidence he lacked. Yes, it’s true that he stuttered and stammered, squirmed in his seat, turned red, and got sweaty, but he got the same results a confident person would have gotten, so Tom was successful. He got the same results because he did the same thing a confident person would have done, which is to tell the waiter to take the steak back.
Yes, Tom’s first attempt to be assertive was a bit slipshod, but each time he asserts himself, he will grow more and more skillful and confident, and as he grows in confidence the people he deals with will treat him with more and more respect. This new found respect will further reinforce Tom’s confidence, causing it to grow even more.
Can you see how acting as if will allow us to discover our own power? And compare this strategy with the many other processes that are used to eliminate limiting beliefs:
Benefits of Acting As If
1. There is no book to buy, audio program to listen to, or expensive seminar to attend.
2. It is easy to do. That is, it is not complicated (although it can be stressful in the early stages).
3. It is fast. There is no need to waste time trying to figure out precisely what limiting belief is holding you back and how you got it.
4. It is the most effective method (for example, many people find visualization and affirmations ineffective).
5. It is the most powerful method, for the heart of the system is action (acting as if), not (positive) thinking or visualizing.
Overview of the Method
For this overview, I will use the example of Tom, who wishes to become more confident.
1. Don’t fight or struggle with the ‘weakness’ (such as lack of confidence) you are trying to overcome. The more you struggle with it the stronger it will become. What we resist persists, so don’t resist.
2. Accept yourself as you are, but when you are in a situation you want to change (such as poor service in a restaurant), just say to yourself, I may be timid, but I’m going to act as if I’m confident.
3. Ask yourself what a confident person would do if they were in your position and then do it (such as tell the waiter to take back the burnt steak).
4. Don’t worry about how well or poorly you perform, it is the action that counts, not whether or not the action was elegant. And in time, you will be the equal of the best of them; it just takes practice. But you can start receiving results from your first day, no matter how poorly your new behavior is executed.
5. “Acting As If” not only refers to the words we use and actions we take, but to our physiological status as well. For example, if we return to Tom in the restaurant, he should ask himself about the physiological status of a confident person in his position. That is, would he be slumped in the chair or seated erect? Would he look directly into the eyes of the waiter as he spoke or would he be gazing at the floor? Would he be breathing slowly or hyperventilating? Would his shoulders be tightly drawn or relaxed? The physiological attributes of the person we wish to become are the most difficult to mimic in the beginning, but they are also extremely powerful tools, as the following examples show.
1. When Professor James Laird in the 70’s tested whether it was true that you can change the way people feel by changing the way they behave, he found that smiling made students feel better and clenching their teeth made them angrier when they were upset. Thanks to his work, the spotlight was now being directed back to the work of William James.
2. Other scholars took up the mantle of investigating and testing the work of William James. For instance, Dana Carney, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, had volunteers assume the physiology of a “big wheel” or “wheeler and dealer” by siting at a desk with their feet on the desk and their hands clasped behind their head. Not only did the volunteers feel more confident, but the amount of testosterone flowing through their veins was higher than volunteers that did not assume the power pose (“big wheel” position).
3. Also, in 1979, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer conducted a week long retreat for men in their 70’s. She had them act as if they were 20 years younger. Within a few days, the retreat participants began to walk more briskly, with some putting aside their canes or walking sticks. They also experienced improvements in dexterity, memory, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing (they were tested before and after the retreat).
4. Moreover, in the late 1980’s, psychologists at the University of Illinois had two groups of students rate cartoons. One group rated the cartoons while they held felt markers in their mouths. The other group just rated them by hand. Those who held the markers in their mouths thought the cartoons were funnier than the other group did. Why was that? The psychologists made one group hold markers in their mouths because they knew it would force the volunteers to smile. And by smiling, the students were in a happier frame of mind, which led them to find the cartoons funnier.
So, at last, the teachings of William James are gaining acceptance, and leading the charge is Professor RichardWiseman, who I deem to be the William James of our era (the more you study Richard Wiseman’s life and accomplishments, the more you will understand why I feel this way). Be sure to check out his books in the Resources section at the end of this article.
1. Although some refer to the Act As If strategy as Fake It ‘Till You Make It, I advise against it. Don’t use this phrase as you don’t want to announce to your subconscious that you are ‘faking.’ You’re not faking action; you’re taking real action, no matter how small it may be. Besides, you are not faking it; you are rehearsing it.
2. Self-limiting beliefs are merely stories that we tell ourselves, so change the story by acting as if you are the person you want to be.
3. The idea that “I can’t get anywhere because of my limiting beliefs” is just another limiting belief. Don’t use limiting beliefs as excuses, but as reasons for change.
4. Why liberate yourself from limiting beliefs? Because you want to thrive, not just survive.
5. If you’re facing a problem and seem to be stuck, not knowing how to begin, think of an exceptional person who you respect and admire, and ask yourself, “How would my hero begin? How would (s)he tackle any problems that may appear after taking action? Then act as if you were that person.
Another Gift from William James
William James also developed The 10-Day Plan, which is also designed to eliminate limiting beliefs. Like the Act As If strategy, it is simple, powerful, and effective. Both strategies are valuable, but when used together, they can make one invincible.
The good and bad news about The 10-Day Plan is that it is easy to carry out. Although I don’t have to explain why that is good news, you’ll want to know why I call that bad news. You see, we tend to doubt the value of anything that is cheap, easy to get, or easy to do. That is the danger. Once you learn how easy it is to follow the procedure, you may dismiss it as a silly gimmick with little value. To arrive at that conclusion would be a serious mistake. Now that you have been forewarned, I’m ready to share this life-altering technique.
It is simply this. Promise yourself for the next ten days you will start doing something you should be doing or stop doing something you should not be doing. For example, “For the next ten days I promise myself to wake up 30 minutes earlier to avoid arriving late at the office.” Or, “For the next ten days, I will stop eating fatty food for lunch.” Simple, isn’t it? Now, let’s look at the procedure in detail and follow that with an explanation of why this simple plan can transform lives.
1. Promise yourself for the next ten days you will start doing something you should be doing or stop doing something you should not be doing.
2. Write the date and your promise on a small card and keep it in your purse or wallet so that every time you reach for money, you will see the card and be reminded of your promise.
3. Make a promise that is achievable. Don’t overreach. For example, if I want to stop smoking, it may be too difficult to completely stop. If that were the case, I could promise myself to stop smoking between the hours of 10 am and 12 noon, for example.
4. Keep your promise at all costs. Live up to your word. Failure to do so will lead to further erosion of your self-confidence! That’s why step #3 is so important.
5. Because you are breaking from your normal routine, one day you may forget to carry out your promise. Don’t let that bother you, but you will have to start all over again, from the beginning. You see, you must keep your promise for 10 consecutive days.
6. Keep a log or journal. Nothing fancy is required. Just a couple of sentences will do. At the end of your day, write down the results of your promise and how you feel. Your journal will help to keep you focused on your goal and serve as a reminder of your accomplishments.
7. Keep your promise for ten days. After that period, you are under no obligation to continue the new behaviour. This is an important point because it is what makes the program so easy to follow. All you have to do is maintain your new behaviour for ten days!
8. Of course, if you wish to continue with your new behaviour, that’s perfectly fine. But if you wish to stop, that’s equally acceptable. However, if you stop, you then begin a 10-day program on something else. For instance, after Ted successfully stopped smoking between 10 am and 12 noon for ten days, he could terminate that program and start a new one, such as cutting back on his TV viewing by one hour a day for the next ten days.
Why is this procedure so valuable if all you have to do is maintain your new, desirable behavior for ten days? It is because every ten days you are a winner. Every ten days, you are successful. Every ten days, you have proven to yourself that you have the power to change. Every ten days, you experience a surge in self-confidence. And the constant repetition of one ten-day program followed by another leads to the development of a new habit. You will have developed the habit of tackling what you have avoided in the past. You will have acquired the habit of self-discipline and self-improvement.
Moreover, with the completion of each ten day program, we make remarkable discoveries. We learn that positive action is much easier to accomplish than we had imagined. We experience the relief that follows doing something that once was nagging us. We also experience the pride, pleasure, and the benefits that follow from taking action. And the discovery that we have the power to control our destiny is nothing less than thrilling. When we embark on a life of endless ten-day programs, we discover adventure and excitement, and we live life to the fullest by daring to tackle what we could fail in, for as William James said, “It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all.” All of the above points motivate us to continue leading a life of endless growth. In other words, the rewards we reap propel us forward.
This program develops self-reliance. By living up to your promises, you discover you can rely on yourself. This is what Aesop was alluding to when he wrote twenty-six hundred years ago, “The gods help them that help themselves.” Let’s wrap up with some final words by William James, “Your hopes, dreams and aspirations are legitimate. They are trying to take you airborne, above the clouds, above the storms, if you only let them. Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second. Give your dreams all you’ve got and you’ll be amazed at the energy that comes out of you.”
Can you embark on an endless journey of 10-Day Plans? Act as if you can! What ten-day program will you begin today? Before you answer, heed the warning of William James, “He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he had tried and failed.”
Are you ready to end the grief and get relief from your limiting beliefs? You will be if you practice the Act As If principle and The 10-Day Plan!