Imagine this: Someone sends you a request by e-mail, but they don’t say “please” or “thank you,” only “Hey, can you do this?” The story you tell yourself is that they’re rude or angry with you. Instead of considering that they may have written their e-mail at a rushed moment or even with consideration for your efficiency, you get upset by the harsh tone and hold on to that frustration. Holding frustration without an effort to clarify is what summons the Imagiphant.
What is an Imagiphant?
The Imagiphant species of Avoidephants are born from stories you’ve told yourself and assumptions you’ve made without confirming or testing your beliefs. If you think you have an Imagiphant in your presence, it’s important to remember that all of our perspectives influence our experiences, and our experiences influence our views. Although your feelings may not be based on the truth, it doesn’t make it less accurate for you because it’s your truth. And our assumptions are usually born from a reality we experienced, observed, or were told. While they may be true sometimes, they may not be true all of the times. When you lock yourself into one perspective about a situation or person without taking the time to consider other possibilities, a hungry little Imagiphant grows and grows.
These might be the hardest elephants to free because doing so requires us to consider that we could be wrong and may have to view someone we’ve struggled with in a different light. Humans are far more likely to interpret someone’s intentions as unfavorable because anticipating negative situations helps us protect ourselves. Our brain wants completion. We desire understanding and certainty even when things are complex, so our mind fills in the gaps when we don’t have all the data. In the absence of information, we create our own stories.
When there’s an Imagiphant in the room, it’s not just about misjudging someone else’s intention. Sometimes we have to re-evaluate our intentions. This makes the Imagiphant hard to spot on our own. You may need someone else to help you, a co-pilot, and keep an eye out for Imagiphants in your path.
An Imagiphant In Action
A while back, a good friend of mine, a colleague doing somewhat similar work in leadership consulting, and I were having lunch. I had shared with him a new story/concept I was creating related to leadership work. After our lunch, he followed up with me and asked if he could share my story in his newsletter.
When I got the e-mail request, my amygdala got a little prickly and protective. My brain was spinning quite loudly on this thought. “But wait! That was my content. I wanted to be the one to share that information.”
Because of my work with mindfulness and great therapists, I can typically catch and observe strong, unproductive emotions reasonably quickly. Typically. I believe in coming from a place of abundance. I also have a great deal of love and respect for this friend. So I was caught off guard by my own threatened response.
I tried to observe the thoughts and get curious about them but found myself battling with the tension.
My husband Nick happened to walk into the kitchen while I was processing. When he asked what was wrong, I said, “I’m having an interesting moment right now and trying to stay curious.” I explained the situation and my reaction and tried to figure out the best path forward.
Now you may know that I lovingly and playfully describe one of my missions: to rid the world of shitty managers. As Nick is familiar with this mission, he said, “Yeah, I can understand your frustration. The question that’s coming up for me is, do you want to rid the world of shitty managers like you’ve said, or do you want to be the one to rid the world of shitty managers?”
Nick’s insight was exactly what I needed to reshape my perspective. My imagination was telling me a story that this colleague might negatively impact my work. But the reality is the content had to get out, regardless of my attachment. My colleague wasn’t co-opting my content; he was helping me with my mission.
Without Nick’s input, the story I told myself could have impacted my relationship with my colleague and limited the reach of that message, missing the chance to connect with people who needed to hear about the concept through him and not me.
This brings up an interesting side note on Imagiphants: once we can get space from a situation and test our stories, sometimes we can look back and realize we couldn’t remember what upset us first! To this day, I can’t tell you what content I created triggered me at the time, but I’ll never forget the emotional journey it took me on.