Arguing with invisible people in my head

Pornography for your ego

Image: A boxer alone in a ring throwing punches

Apparently the French call it esprit de l’escalier, which I think translates to “staircase wit”. It’s for that situation when you think of the perfect comeback for something someone said to you earlier. It’s as if you’re walking up some stairs, long after some argument you lost, and you think, “goddamn it, I should have said…”

Sometimes, that perfect comeback isn’t just a pithy little turn of phrase that would have slotted into one ideal moment. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that I have thought out whole arguments with people. I can think about it for as long as it takes to shower or commute somewhere on my bike. I can go through different permutations if the argument goes one way or another. If they say this then I could say that, and if they say that I could say this.

Not only am I not alone, I’m pretty sure some people take it further than I have. Last time I was in Vancouver, I was walking around the Granville Island Market, and I saw this dude, kind of a big guy, not super muscular, but tall and heavy set. He was walking by me as I was eating a sandwich or something, and he caught my eye because he was throwing punches and kicks into the air, just enough motion for him to act out the scenario in his head, but restrained enough to not be a problem in public. His eyes were red as if he had been crying, or soon might tear up, with rage, frustration, sadness, or something.

Of course I have no idea what his deal was, maybe he’s just nuts. But he didn’t look like someone with any particular mental issues or anything like that, he just looked like a regular guy who was dealing with some shit. I imagined he had just come from some frustrating situation where someone had screwed him over, and he was fantasizing about beating that person to a satisfying pulp.

I don’t think he was doing anything that almost everyone doesn’t do from time to time, he was just wearing it on his sleeve a little more. It gave me a moment to think about how this kind of thing is pretty much universal.

It’s a hard habit to break, and I am trying to break it, because I’ve realized that it’s more than just a waste of time and mental energy.

The time wasting aspect can’t be understated, though. Although the simulated debates in your head feel like some kind of Platonic dialectic that sharpens your point of view, that’s just what you tell yourself to make it seem like something more respectable than pornography for your ego.

The moments in the past that you’re correcting are gone, and the ideal scenarios you imagine coming up in the future will never be. The variability of the input from everyone around you is near infinite, and unpredictable. So you’re doing a lot of thinking about stuff that isn’t really developing anything. Imagine how much more interesting and useful thinking you could do if you didn’t spend it pretending you were smarter than everyone else? Even just taking a break and thinking about nothing is a better use of your time for the rest it provides.

But it’s actually worse than that. The brain is a lot less clear on the difference between fantasy and reality than our consciously rational image of ourselves would like to believe. Which can be a useful tool. Athletes who compete at high levels often use positive visualization to imagine themselves making the play they need to make, and so far as I know, it helps.

The downside, though, is that you could talk yourself into a fantasy that won’t stand up to reality. I think that when you imagine yourself winning these hypothetical debates, you start to buy your own marketing. On some level it feels like you’re actually winning actual debates, and you build a self image that believes it’s smarter than it really is.

It’s tempting to suppose that even if you accept that the people you are debating in your head are just avatars who exist solely to bow before your intellectual might, that you still gain something by working through your ideas. Not really, though. You’re not actually being challenged to elevate your thinking in any way, because those strawmen in your head could only conceive of the challenges you could conceive of. They only test you in ways that you’re already passing because they are you.

It might also be tempting to imagine that you have an ability to construct avatars for people you know because you have such an insightful view of them. You can anticipate or imagine what they really might say, because you’re just that good at reading people. In a technical sense, it can’t be proven false that some people might have that level of perception, but to believe that about yourself is to buy into the hubris of evaluating yourself by yourself on terms set out by yourself for the benefit of yourself. You can never know if the other that you imagine acted how the other that is would act in your mental scenario, because there is no measuring system that isn’t based on you. Even when you look at the real person in real life, what you’re seeing is your take on them, it’s filtered through what you consider important about them.

There is some limited benefit to imagining interactions with some people. Like any tool, it’s not inherently good or bad, it’s how you use it that determines its merit.

For example, I perform comedy, and sometimes I think through the jokes I’m going to say on stage, and I try and imagine as much as I can the feel and ambiance of being on stage in front of people. I imagine saying the words, and I try and think about where I would pause in anticipation of the audience laughing. There’s a danger, though, in convincing myself that they audience definitely will laugh. There’s a huge divide between “I want them to laugh here”, and “they should laugh here.”

What generally keeps me constrained from buying into a self created image of myself as funnier than I really am is that I get on a real stage, and say the words as I’ve practiced, and the real life audience does or doesn’t laugh. Verifying against reality is the complete antidote against hubris.

Arguments in your head, though, go largely unchallenged, because while they seem close to real life discussions, they are far from the word for word practiced scenes in the play of your life that you need them to be to work. My comedy set is a very constructed reality where the people will actually be where I imagine them to be, out there beyond the lights of the stage, and I will have the chance to say exactly what I intended to say. It is close enough to what I imagined right up to the point where the audience decides to laugh or not, and that’s when reality takes over. Arguments with the people in your life, though, will never follow the rails to that degree. Who exactly is involved, the timing, the conditions, will never just happen to match up with how you envision it in your head.

I’ve realized that for a large part of my life, I believed myself to be smarter than I am because I simply imagined it. There are times I’ve had arguments, later thought of things I could have said that would represent me better, and than as time goes on, which image stays with me? The uncomfortable reality that inspired the fantasy, or the self satisfying fantasy that is more fun to think about so I indulge it more often?

I don’t even know if I can say for sure which mental image, a real memory or a constructed fantasy, has more weight or influence on how I develop. What I do know for sure, though, is that the constructed images of debates I win definitely exist in my head, and they aren’t without any influence. How much influence from them is acceptable? I’m pretty sure less than what I’ve just been accepting as an unconsidered default.

So I try to catch myself out and stop it. Whenever I imagine myself going over past events I wish I had handled better, or simulating situations in which I get to express myself as I really want, I stop, and check myself to make sure I’m not creating a false image that only satisfies my ego.

It’s not so much whether or not I’m imagining myself being awesome, I’m fine with that. I am awesome. The dividing line is if I’m imagining other people participating in that self image. Those imaginary people don’t know shit. It’s real people you have to check in with.