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Acting “As If”

written by Shannon Polly 25 June 2015
Playing dress-up

Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.

Editor’s note: Today, June 25, is the official launch date of the book, Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life, coinciding with the start of the 4th World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association in Orlando, Florida. The book is published in loving memory of Christopher Peterson, master scientist of character strengths, and the proceeds go to the Christopher Peterson Memorial Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania.

Character Strengths Matter is the third book in the Positive Psychology News series, joining Resilience: How to Navigate Life’s Curves and Gratitude: How to Appreciate Life’s Gifts. A Kindle version of Character Strengths Matter is also available.

This article comes from the introduction in the book. It explains why the book includes read-aloud passages for all character strengths. For those of you that read aloud to your children, grandchildren, or friends, it may come as a surprise how much good you are doing yourself.

Children play. They imagine. They play ‘dress up’. Right now my two- and four-year-olds are running around the house both pretending to be Dorothy and I have been cast as the ‘Wicked Witch’. It is by playing ‘mommy’ or ‘doctor’ or ‘dragon-slayer’ that they try new things and learn how to grow into adulthood.

But something happens when people get older. They get put in boxes. You are a teacher, and teachers only do certain things. You are a businesswoman, so you can’t also be a ballroom dancer.

To explore what happens when we jump to conclusions, I facilitate a game called “Two truths and a lie,” in some of my workshops. When I tell participants that I was an actor and an associate Broadway producer, they think it’s the lie. “But you couldn’t be,” they respond. “You’re the facilitator!” Society tells us how to fit into our roles so that we become more easily categorized. But this limits our creativity and our development.

The truth is that we play many characters in our lives. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a businesswoman, and a friend.

Shakespeare put it best in As You Like It:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”

So how do we break out of being stuck in particular roles? Both acting teachers, like Konstantin Stanislavsky, and psychologists, like Alfred Adler, recognized the benefits of taking on new roles for development.

According to Adler, “When people have difficulty […] speaking assertively or responding with some measure of empathy, the clinician might encourage them to act “as if” they were assertive or empathic several times a day until the next session. As people begin to act differently and to feel differently, they become different.”

To apply the actor’s tool kit to real life, we can act “as if” with our intentions, emotions, and physicality. One excellent way to act “as if” is to read aloud.

Social psychologist Daryl Bem states that humans form conclusions about themselves by observing themselves in the same way that they form conclusions about others by observing them. Acting “as if” gives people opportunities to enact best possible outcomes or to create new stories about their lives. Asking people to pretend helps them get past resistance to change by reducing the risk.

Acting “as if” can also feel risky. No one wants to look silly in front of his or her peers. I’ve had coaching mentors tell me not to use the term ‘role play’ because clients have such visceral negative reactions to the idea of performing. But when I ask clients to “try on” conversations with their bosses about reducing hours, the words flow, and the future conversation becomes less daunting. The fear of the conversation turns out to be worse than the conversation itself. So what are we doing when we “try on” that conversation?

In human development, we venture from who we are right now into who we are not yet but could be, territory that Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky called our zone of proximal development (ZPD). The acquisition of new knowledge is dependent on previous learning as well as “trying on” new behaviors, often reflected back to us by the people around us. If a baby says “ba-ba,” we don’t say “Nope, that’s not it. Try again!” We say, “Bottle! Look honey, she just said ‘bottle’!” As adults we help children grow into what they can become. When you finish words for babies, they are growing in their ZPDs. When we “try on” new ways of behaving, we are venturing into our own ZPDs and expanding our ideas about what is possible.

When I facilitate workshops on character strengths, I find that many people immediately focus on the bottom of their lists where their weakest strengths are. We are hardwired with a negativity bias, after all, and it is not a bad thing to want to improve. I frequently get asked, “How can I develop my strengths?”

I respond, “Pretend that you have them. Act ‘as if’ you are kind, or forgiving, or curious.“

“But how do I do that if I don’t know how?”

“Improvisational theater would tell you to make it up. You have probably observed someone acting in that way in your lifetime. Take that next meeting of yours and try acting ‘as if’ you have that strength.”

One way to act “as if” is to read a piece of literature or a speech that embodies that strength. In this book, the discussion of each character strength is augmented with at least one monologue, poem, or famous speech to be performed aloud.

Don’t just read them silently to yourself. Reading silently means you are only taking in the text with your eyes. In addition to helping you act “as if,” reading aloud:

  • Sharpens your focus
  • Connects you to your emotions and imagination
  • Increases your vocabulary
  • Results in greater comprehension
  • Gives you an opportunity to play
  • Exercises your body
  • Challenges your use of intonation
  • Improves listening and reading skills

These benefits are worth the discomfort of going outside your comfort zone and the fear of looking foolish. Reading aloud helps you explore your ZPD and expand yourself. Literally, by taking on new characters out loud, you can build character strengths.

So try it right now. Put down your coffee. Stop checking your email. Read the following aloud, and start to embody the strengths of zest, bravery, and appreciation of beauty and excellence.

Chesapeake (Monologue)
by Lee Blessing

(This character is a senator addressing Congress to urge for Arts funding.)

Are there miracles in life? I for one know that there are. And because I know this, I recognize that there are dimensions of life that we do not understand, that we must explore. If we refuse to do this, if we fail to examine publicly and persistently and collectively the innermost nature of life, we lose the right to call ourselves a society at all. We become merely an aggregation of purposeless spirits, ghosts encased in flesh.

Nearly two hundred years ago we sent Lewis and Clark to go where we could not. To explore a land we knew was ours, but which only they could reach. They brought it back to us. I submit that a similar land, but far vaster, occupies the human soul. Only a few people can find the way there. If we help them go we help ourselves, because they can–they will–bring it back to us. Their discoveries won’t all be happy or beautiful. Some will be dangerous. But each will enlarge us. Deepen us. Revive us.



Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 1-62). New York: Academic Press.

Stanislavsky, K. (1936, 1989). Building A Character. Translated by E. R. Hapgood. Routledge Reprint Editions.

Stanislavsky, K. (1936, 1989). An Actor Prepares. Routledge Reprint Editions.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Reprinted in M. Gauvain & M. Cole (Eds.), Readings on the Development of Children (2nd edition). New York: W. H. Freeman & Company.

Watts, R. E., Peluso, P. R., & Lewis, T. F. (2005). Expanding the Acting As If Technique: An Adlerian/Constructive Integration. Journal of Individual Psychology, 61 (4), 380-387.


Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Playing dress up courtesy of millersjon
Actor of many colors courtesy of hto2008
Baby vocalizing courtesy of summerbl4c

Konstantin Stanislavsky from wikimedia.
Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet from wikimedia
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from wikimedia

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Jan Stanley 25 June 2015 - 11:39 am


Thank you for this wonderful encouragement to try on new behaviors! I have a few in mind to try today – persistence as I tie together a few loose ends, and optimism as I venture into a few new challenges.

I followed your advice and read aloud Chesapeake. My backbone straightened and my voice deepened as I reached the last few powerful lines – “Each will enlarge us. Deepen us. Revive us.”

Thank you!

Jeff Salters 25 June 2015 - 1:27 pm


Thanks for your excellent article! It reinforces the message I convey to clients about getting out of the self-imposed boxes we (myself included) place ourselves in. Last week, in a presentations skills class, I coached a woman who delivered with low energy, poor projection and little inflection to go bigger, louder and bolder. In one day, by behaving differently, she made an amazing transformation! Her classmates commented on her huge leap, and she thanked me for giving her permission to transcend her perceived limitations.

One comment I sometimes get from participants is about how it feels inauthentic to act like something you’re not. How do/would you respond?

I look forward to reading your book. Lots of luck!


Shannon Polly 30 June 2015 - 9:30 pm

Thank you, Jan. It’s interesting that you had such a somatic response to the monolog. Although I’m not surprised. Thanks for trying it on!


Shannon Polly 30 June 2015 - 9:34 pm

Hi Jeff,

Thanks for your comments and congrats on what seems like a successful coaching/training session!

I get the question a lot too. It doesn’t seem authentic for me to lift weights, but I do it because I want to feel/look better and be healthier. If your goal is to be more powerful, doing what you’ve always done doesn’t get you where you want to go.

We are always playing different ‘roles’ depending on what ‘scene’ we are in. It’s like a prism. I’m a different person when I play ‘daughter’, and different as ‘mom’, and still different as I play ’employee’ or ‘consultant’.

When we are trying new things we will always have to be ‘outside our comfort zone’. And it will be uncomfortable, which may feel inauthentic. Our feelings and thoughts are good information but are frequently inaccurate.

If you just get promoted as a manager, that doesn’t feel comfortable either and you have to ‘act like a manager’ until you get the hang of it. It’s the same thing with presence, but because there isn’t a specific work role or personal role (like being a parent) that people tend to view those as more ‘inauthentic’.

Does that help?


phoebe atkinson 6 July 2015 - 8:30 pm

Shannon: Thank you for this wonderful article. I am a trainer and practitioner of psychodrama – and am very much aligned with your ideas – as psychodrama with its philosophical roots embedded in ‘role theory’ (i.e. we have a multiplicity of roles within us and we develop from the different roles we try on, and create through role take, role play, role create sequence!). I’m excited about the linkages that are now being made with the well-established form of role play methods and other psychodramatic tools and techniques concretized and and brought to the U.S. by J.L. Moreno in the early 1920’s. Moreno conducted spontaneity tests (acting as if) and furthered established his role training methods for use in clinical and educational settings. Acting as if – role playing – is a natural fit with the theories of Bem for instance and its people like yourself who are now bringing these together – making them visible and user-friendly – such as with the VIA strengths focus. Thank you and a read filled with ideas and passion – can’t wait to incorporate these into my work!
With great respect
Phoebe, nyc

Shannon Polly 7 July 2015 - 12:40 pm


Thanks for your wonderful comments and linkage to psychodrama. My colleague Dan Tomasulo has done a lot of work with psychodrama and positive psychology. The article limit was too short to include all the linkages, so I’m glad you included them here!

I think some of the additional work around using strengths and generating positive emotion would be even more evidence for the efficacy of role play/psychodrama/acting ‘as if’.

Best of luck with your work.

Warm regards,

Shannon Polly 7 July 2015 - 12:43 pm

I received a lovely email that I wanted to post here as well. Thank you, Adam, for your scholarship and encouragement.

“Shannon reminds us to forget distracting words such as psychodrama or even closer to home, role play, because semantically they can be threatening. Moreno was talking about this in the 1930s and 40s and I was in the 70s through the present. Thank you for that reference. We’re talking about learning by doing, which is clearly necessary to learn swimming or bike riding, but until the last few decades the variety of things to learn this way was still unappreciated. Simulations has since expanded, and your work adds the dimension of the proper attitude.
I hope I can encourage your enthusiasm in every way, to bring the role play or experiential learning format to a much greater segment of education and life practice.
What Shannon reminds us of—and I wrote about in my Art of Play book— and have used similar quotations!— is a redeeming of the flexible part of the mind that was conditioned out of us, imagination. It’s not just for kids! It can be cultivated.
By the way, the new Pixar cartoon graphic film Inside Out offers a related theme, cultivating the powers of a pluralistic model of the mind. I’m giving a presentation in September at “The Power of Words” conference in Kansas in mid-September about the power of the “role” concept as a user-friendly language for applications of practical psychology to everyday life.
Please be encouraged. I suspect your life is rich and I want to encourage you in any way possible. Warmly Adam Blatner

Judy Krings 15 July 2015 - 7:35 am

I’m late to the dance, but I enjoyed every inspiring word, here, Shannon. You reminded me to help my coaching clients to vision more. To try on new costumes in life and rip off ones that no longer serve them. Change can be great fun as well as work if you choose to frame it that way. Big thanks.

Shannon Polly 30 July 2015 - 9:53 pm

Never too late to the dance, Judy. I like the costume metaphor added to acting ‘as if’. And that fact that change can be fun as well. I had a woman today say she wanted me to talk about storytelling and appreciative inquiry but to leave out that ‘theater stuff’. Because the facilitators I would be talking to were ‘high level’ and wanted to walk away with ‘practical tools’. Of course theater ‘stuff’ isn’t serious enough, right? That Meryl Streep is just phoning in her performance. *Sigh. It takes a while to remind people that just like ‘play’ is the ‘work’ of children to develop, we can continue to develop using play.

Judy Krings 31 July 2015 - 6:29 am

Hey, Shannon and what a great response. “storytelling with now humor? Now how FUN is that? Does all learning have to be drudgery. I’d never make it as all my presentations have some humor. Not alot, but stories are what anchor learning. Fuddy-duddies of the world unite! And read your research on play and the soul and being open-minded, huh? Keep up your great work. HUMOR is a strength! That would be a great workshop, too. Big hugs, Shannon.

Colleen 16 December 2015 - 3:14 pm


I have a lot of interest in the concept of “faking it until you make it” and I think that acting “as if” is a huge component of that. It’s a huge challenge for me personally to role play and I get embarrassed easily when I am put out of my comfort zone. I hope that I can “try on” different strengths to hopefully embody them in “real life.”

Thanks for a great and helpful read,


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