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The Sneaky Subjunctive

Stop begging the question about what your best self would do.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
The Sneaky Subjunctive

Last week, I noticed a possibly problematic thought pattern several times during client sessions. I'm here today to give it a name and an explanation.

Whether you're figuring this out for yourself, or you're reading this link because you and I met and I sent the link to you, I hope it helps!

The subjunctive tense is sometimes used to indicate hypotheticality. You can use it to locate various instances of aspirational, if/then thinking in yourself or in others:

If I were really that confident, then I'd quit my job now.

If I were acting from abundance instead of scarcity, then I'd invest in that course.

If I were less self-conscious, then I'd wear that dress.

If I were less socially awkward, then I'd love going to parties.

When people speak or think like this, in the unreal subjunctive tense, they have one foot in their actual, present-self and one foot out the door into an aspirational future-self. They can see that they're aiming towards attaining some valuable quality, but that this process has not yet come to fruition.

What's wrong with thinking like this? Isn't it good to let your aspirations inform your actions? Isn't that how we become better?

First, it's just not true that we know exactly what you would do if you had more of your desired qualities. Very often, self-confident people don't quit their jobs, "abundant" people don't make one splurge purchase or another, non-self-conscious people decline to wear skimpy clothes, and non-socially-awkward people stay home rather than attending the party. These claims only seem true in the imagination of the aspirational person. They are not true in a robust sense.

Worse, the sneaky subjunctive invites a premature narrowing of what ought to be a broad, all-things-considered decision about what to do. If/then thinking based on one discrete trait ignores how, in vivo, our traits recombine and interact in ultra-complicated ways.

Sure, more confidence or abundance or less self-consciousness might suggest that the likelihood of you doing something would go up or down. But this is hardly conclusive - all manner of other traits and values will inform the decision, not to mention external circumstances.

The confident person may also be either altruistic or selfish, the less-socially-awkward person could be anywhere from codependent to misanthropic. Are all of these equally as good? Over-focusing on the target trait obscures how it does or could fit into your personal psychological ecosystem.

Bottom line:

When you (inaccurately) hold up one course of action as the one that your better self would definitely do, you up the ante in what was already a difficult decision.

It's like daring yourself to do the (apparent) self-confident/abundant/etc thing. Occasionally, you get dared to do something you want to do already (kiss that cute classmate, eat 6 donuts). But, most of the time, dares cause you to do something you didn't already have other sufficient reason to do.

Now look, I am basically a virtue ethicist and I believe that thinking in terms of character traits is often useful. But that doesn't mean every trait-based line of thought is without its inaccuracies or potential costs. There's a big difference between thinking "hm, if I were generous I'd sometimes treat my friends to lunch" and "if I were confident, then I'd do [this particular huge complicated thing right now]".

If you (dubiously) assume out of the gate what your better, more virtuous self would do, you're essentially begging the question that was at issue in the first place.

Don't take a decision that could have been object-level and make it needlessly fraught. Root out the suspicious, sneaky subjunctive.

Pamela J. Hobart Twitter

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.