Do you ever run through an argument with someone in your head?
I’m not talking about replaying a conversation in your mind to figure out where it took a turn for the worse, and could you have done something different to avoid it. Or coming up with the perfect bon mot after leaving the party. I mean going through a full-blown, heated argument with someone—an argument you’ve never had and probably never will.
Every person I’ve asked has admitted to doing this. We feel silly for doing it. But for some reason, we do it.
And it’s making us miserable.
I caught myself doing this the other day while driving home from work. It was a beautiful day, I was on my way to have dinner with my darling wife and adorable children, and here I was making up an argument with someone I didn’t even know! Instead of carrying on this imaginary argument, I switched to something much more real: picturing my children’s smiling faces when they saw I was home.
- Negative emotions are powerful and addictive. You know how some people are easily offended? They’re addicted to the outrage (and the accompanying validation). We want to be right, we want to feel important, and it’s easier to fly off the handle than to develop your self-esteem. It’s hard work to break the cycle, but you’ll be happier in the long-run. You have enough problems to deal with without inventing new ones.
- You’re training yourself to be miserable. In sales and negotiation training, you practice having the actual conversation. What are you going to say? How will you respond to what they say? By having these conversations in your head, you’re training yourself to pick an argument. Instead of listening to what’s actually being said, part of you will be watching for an opportunity to launch into a partially-rehearsed tirade.
- You’re looking for the worst in others. How else can you justify going off on someone? You’re suspicious of their motives. You’re cynical. You don’t trust them, nor do you want to. Whatever you focus on—be it their faults or their virtues—that’s what you’re going to see more of. Personally, I want to focus on their virtues and help them bring out their best.
- It becomes self-fulfilling. When you’re riding a bike, the bike goes where your attention is. So do your conversations. Sooner or later, you’re going to end up having that argument. You’re focusing on their faults, you’ve rehearsed the argument in your head, and it’s going to come naturally. You’ve trained for this. You’ve become the person you’ve spent so much time thinking about.
When you find yourself doing this, just stop it. Let the conversation end where it is. Mid-sentence.
Then take a step back.
Is there an unresolved issue that you need to work through with this person? Do you need to make the first move in strengthening the relationship?
Do you need closure on something? Is closure even possible? Or worth it?
Do you need to forgive someone?
Or do you just like witty repartee and clever banter? That’s fine. Pay attention to who you’re becoming as a result.
And be sure not to miss your children’s smiling faces because you were too busy making up an argument with someone you don’t know about something that didn’t happen.