Having imaginary arguments with people in our heads is something we all do from time to time, although maybe you do it fairly often, which can make you ask yourself: is arguing this much in my head normal? Why am I doing it? Imaginary arguments, especially when they become intrusive and regular, are an interesting psychological phenomenon, and can be quite instructive in terms of better understanding our personal hang-ups.
How Imaginary Arguments Play Out
At times I have been an obsessive, chronic imaginary arguer. In the past when I used to get into these quarrelsome ruts, I didn’t question why I got into them, I simply did and would play out imaginary arguments with people over and over again, digging myself deeper into states of frustration and annoyance. There is of course value in imaginary arguments, as they can serve as unique tools for introspection, allowing us to clarify why we believe the things we do, and whether the arguments we present for such beliefs could stand up to scrutiny. Imaginary arguments can also be healthy if they help us improve our communication and relations with others. An imaginary argument can be a chance to reflect on how we might be less judgemental and more open in a future argument.
The problem, however, is that we are not perfectly rational thinkers and all too often arguments – be they real or imaginary – can become big emotional and personal problems, with the arguments themselves becoming repetitive and fuel for self-destructive thoughts and feelings, as well as fuel for negative perceptions of others, including those closest to us. Indeed, there is a vital distinction between introspective and rumination: the former is healthy self-examination, whereas the latter is when you continually turn around the same thoughts and scenarios in your head. Rumination is strongly linked to patterns of self-criticism, which puts your mental well-being at risk.
You can get yourself into ruminative imaginary arguments in all sorts of ways. You can replay an actual argument you had with someone but altering its course; you can continue an argument with someone (in your head) after the argument is over; and you can rehearse completely new arguments with people you know, strangers (in real life or on the internet), and imaginary people (such as characters in dreams). A lot of the time – and for me, this is true – these imaginary arguments centre on a wish to win the argument or position myself as more than the person I’m arguing with in some way – more rational, more logical, more objective, more thoughtful, more balanced, and so on.
But whether I can prove myself in this way in my imagination or not is sometimes irrelevant. For example, if I win an imaginary, extended argument, after perceiving I lost an actual argument, then I’m left with this anxiety that I need to go and prove myself right, whilst berating myself for not being able to spell out this perfect, watertight argument I’ve carefully devised. Losing an imaginary argument can, meanwhile, also be a recipe for self-criticism.
The French philosopher Denis Diderot coined the term l’espirit de l’escalier (literally meaning “mind of the staircase”) to highlight those instances where we think of the perfect remark to make to someone too late. He describes this phenomenon in his essay Paradox of the Actor (1830), noting that we often think of the perfect thing to say to someone once we’ve left his or her company and we’re at the bottom of the stairs, already on our way home. Diderot thought of the phrase following a conversation he had at the mansion of his friend and statesman Jacques Necker. Necker made a comment to Diderot that left him stumped, unable to reply as he later saw fit: “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again at the bottom of the stairs.” This universal experience is also commonly referred to as ‘staircase wit’.
I’ve felt that sudden illumination of staircase wit countless times, and it always leaves me feeling regretful, convinced that I would feel so much more at ease if I had just made this carefully worded response I later thought of. To me, this desire is not so much about spreading the best ideas in the name of Truth but about a range of other motives.
Some of the Reasons Why We Argue With People in Our Heads
To reiterate the point made earlier, imaginary arguments can be healthy, if there is a constructive endpoint to them. However, if an imaginary argument with someone is getting you worked up and you can’t help arguing with this person in your head, then this would be unhealthy and most likely pointless. When imaginary arguments become obsessive, this tends to point to an underlying problem in yourself that is driving the obsession. The winner or loser of the argument is really secondary; what is probably more important for the ruminator is the question of why the rumination is occurring and what can be done to resolve it.
Imaginary arguments often occur when we believe our self-image is significantly boosted or sullied by the winning or losing of arguments, respectively. To win an argument, in this case, is an achievement to show the world, proving that you are intellectually or morally superior, whereas losing an argument achieves the opposite: it embarrassingly shows others – and worst of all your conversational opponent – that you are less informed, less reasonable, and less articulate. If your sense of self-worth is unstable, then arguments can become powerful determinants of how you should view yourself. After you win an argument, this can lift your spirits and enhance your self-confidence, while losing an argument can be like losing face, making you feel stupid in front of others. This lost argument may then gnaw at you. You might imagine your conversational opponent relishing the win, basking in the warm glow of their smugness, and never forgetting who proved themselves to be the more respectable person on that day.
Imaginary arguments can be a response to these troubling feelings. If you can make a better argument in your head, then this might make you regain some self-respect; although, if the imaginary argument is ruminative and based more on feelings of irritation towards the person you were arguing with, then it is likely to exacerbate such feelings, perhaps also putting a damper on the relationship. These kinds of irritable feelings are less about the person making an annoyingly poor argument and more about personal insecurities, self-criticism, and low self-esteem. The person as an object of irritation is a mirror reflecting back one’s irritation towards oneself. Because the irritation towards oneself is too challenging to address, other people become receptacles and embodiments of such irritation, which is immediately easier to deal with; but it does distort others, making us dislike them and just want to bicker and argue with them. And so that’s what many of us do, with some time perhaps spent arguing in real life but much more time spent arguing in our own heads.
Nevertheless, in reality, winning or losing an argument (if such winning and losing can even be identified) is an irrelevant marker of self-worth. It may be for partly cultural reasons that so many of us let our self-worth be shaped by how arguments play out in real life, on the internet, or in our heads. In a highly competitive culture, intelligence, knowledge, facts, stats, and articulation all become forms of capital that can help elevate us above others, improving our social standing. But an individual’s personal hang-ups will be involved, too. People who are mostly secure would find it easier to avoid falling into ruts of imaginary arguments. High levels of security and self-respect are based on the recognition that the winning or losing of arguments is not something worth obsessing over, and that losing an argument is often just as valuable – or more valuable – than winning an argument. Humility, after all, comes from our failings, not our triumphs.
Whenever you catch yourself constantly arguing with someone in your head, it’s worth examining why this argument or this person is a recurring theme. It can be hard to put imaginary arguments to bed, but by exploring the why behind them, you might be able to make progress on the underlying pattern that is fuelling them. Personally, I find when my mental health is worse, I’m much more likely to lock horns with someone in my head for extended periods of time. These imaginary arguments become tiring, distracting, and just plain stressful. When I feel mentally well, on the other hand, less attention, energy, and importance are given to these arguments. They crop up less; and even when they do, they are easier to let go. Imaginary arguments, then, can be like cryptic warning signs, letting us know, in their own way, that we have personal blind spots we need to address.