October 29, 2021

Dear Drama Observers,

I was talking to someone recently about the mind-bending experience of being in a relationship with someone who is personality disordered or what I often refer to in this letter as a drama person. When I traveled and presented live seminars to mental health professionals (back when we did such things), I called them manipulators.

Relating closely with these people is mentally discombobulating because to do so, you’re obligated to participate in an alteration of reality. I’ll illustrate this process through something called suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of Disbelief

A few years ago, I was conducting my seminar in Manhattan. That particular trip coincided with my wedding anniversary, so my wife flew up to meet me, and we spent a couple of days doing the NYC tourist thing. As a very nice gesture, our kids bought us tickets to Beautiful, a Broadway show telling the story of Carole King and her music. We’ve always been big fans of hers, so it was not only beautiful, it was wonderful.

It’s amazing how many well-known songs she wrote, many of which were made famous by other singers like James Taylor, the Righteous Brothers, the Drifters, the Monkees, Herman’s Hermits, and Aretha Franklin. During the play, some of those songs were sung by actors portraying Carole King and other performers. It was all fabulously entertaining.

Now, imagine this. After the show, the missus and I are walking back to our hotel and I say the following:

That was nice and all, but I could tell that actress wasn’t actually Carole King. And the Righteous Brothers? Obviously not them. And, not only that, you could see the stage workers rolling in different backdrops to make us think they had changed locations. I mean, I enjoyed the music, but, I’m sorry, the whole thing was just so fake.

Don’t worry… that’s not what happened. We couldn’t stop talking about how much we enjoyed it, how professional it was, and how privileged we were to be there.

But you know why we were able to enjoy the show so much? It was because of something called suspension of disbelief, a term originally coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to describe what happens in dramas and literature.

Suspension of disbelief is what enables you to ignore the stage workers, get into the story, and enjoy the music. It’s why you’ll be entertained by an illusionist sawing a woman in half while realizing it didn’t really happen.

When we suspend disbelief, we lay aside what we know to be true in order to experience the emotions we’d have if it actually was true. The volume of the rational brain is turned down while the emotional brain’s volume is cranked way up. In dramas, you know what you’re watching is all pretend (the rational brain), but you willingly participate in the pretense for the pleasure of the moment (the emotional brain).

Suspending your disbelief happens with stage productions, but it also occurs in the dramas staged by manipulators. The unspoken—but very real—obligation is to disregard that which is true and participate in the manipulator’s pretend version of reality. Relational “success” is contingent upon your willingness to suspend disbelief.

For example, I had a client once who worked for a jerk. Her boss was widely known as a magnificent person. His public persona was that of a man who was kind, intelligent, funny, and generous. But his private self was quite different. For those who worked with him in close quarters, he was temperamental, rageful, vindictive, and unrealistically demanding. For my client, every day—every minute—at work felt like walking through a minefield where the smallest of missteps could blow off a foot. Over time, being on constant guard had taken its toll on her, both emotionally and physically. She came to see me because she was worried about herself. And so was her husband.

But there was something else going on. She was constantly required in this drama to overlook her boss’s nasty traits and pretend they didn’t exist. She had to participate in a false portrayal—that her boss was indeed kind, intelligent, funny, and generous. She was required to overlook what she knew to be true and participate in a grotesque pretense, because not doing so would likely get her fired. And having to support that bending of reality was taking its toll.

Suspension of disbelief while reading a novel, watching a movie, or attending a play is pleasurable. But suspension of disbelief in real world dramas is miserable. It can cause you to lose the conscious distinction between what’s real and what’s not. It can cause you to compromise your principles for the sake of staying in the good graces of an unprincipled “lead actor.” Your individual self can dissolve into the collective blender of those enabling the pretense. And the physical toll that takes on you can actually make you sick.

In real life dramas, ongoing suspension of disbelief will mess with your brain. But healthy relationships are based on truth and involve no pretense. And such things actually make our brains healthier.

Till next time.

4 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    Growing up with a group of the kind of people you describe causes a child to doubt their own reality and experience. The child who is not valued or loved in these families tends to be scapegoated and told they are bad, stupid, or crazy. Doubting their reality can result in a confusing, difficult and wasted life in which they allow abuse and manipulation to continue.

  2. Carol Konopaski
    Carol Konopaski says:

    Thank you for this interesting newsletter regarding ‘Suspension of disbelief.’ It is unfortunate so many get wrapped up in manipulating behaviors and sadly so many suffer mentally, emotionally, and physically from this type of mindset. I see this ongoing day after day with many clients. Thank you again. I look forward to your newsletters.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks, Carol. I appreciate your feedback and nice comments. I’m so glad this is useful to you.

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