Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Self Direction or Self Destruction?

When is the next best thing the same old thing?

It seems to be Sara's pattern. She’ll get heavily involved with a particular guy for months at a time, and then when things seems to be holding steady, she will suddenly to break it off, and start all over again with someone else. 

John has had 3 jobs in the past 5 years. He performs well, always getting good reviews. But he gets bored, the job not quite what he wants to do. He’s always looking for something….well, different. 

So what is going on with Sara and John? The positive view is that as they move through relationships and jobs they are constantly discovering and fine-tuning what does and doesn't work for them, rather than settling for the mediocre or good-enough. The negative spin is that they may have a problem with commitment, or that their expectations are always to high and unrealistic, or that rather than acknowledging and working through the boredom or problems that can arise in any situation, they choose instead to cut and run. 

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Hmmm….So are Sara and John being self-directed or actually self-sabotaging and possibly self-destructive? Here’s how to tell: 

Self-directed is moving towards; self destructive is moving away. John may decide that he has learned what he can at the current job and sees the next as an opportunity to define his skills and interests even more. That is different from getting fed up with his boss, grumbling only to himself, and eventually feeling that that he has to just get the hell out. 

Similarly, Sara may realize that her current relationship isn't really a good fit. As she gets to know her boyfriend better, and in spite of her attempts to talk to him about, she realizes that they just don't see eye-to eye on some key issues. That's different from simply getting restless or annoyed and simply doing the dump. 

Self directed is about want; self destructive is about should. If you are moving towards something that taps into your values, your interests, your passions, that's healthy. If you are changing because of a “should” – should make more money or have a better title, should date someone more handsome or acceptable to your parents – too much of who you are is left out of the decision. Even if it seems to work for a while, resentment will eventually will set in as you find your real needs constantly pushed to the back burner. 

Self-directed is about proactive and planful; self destructive is impulsive, reactionary, escapist. Solid positive change always involves some degree of risk-taking, but this is supported by reason – planning, decision-making, the weighing of pros and cons. John doesn't just quit one day but looks for jobs for weeks or months, talks to prospective employers before making his move. Sara does try being open and honest with her boyfriend about where she stands and doesn't pull back at the first disappoitment.

Self-destructive change runs on pure negative emotion – the fed up, out-of-here, get-away-now response. Rather than seeing problems as part and parcel of any ongoing experience and attempting to solve them as they arise, all problems are seen as the 5000 pound boulder in the road and the only option is back away and leave them in the dust. Rather mapping out a next-step plan, the only plan is leave and worrying about the rest later. 

Self-direction is about learning from experience and mistakes; self destructive is blaming or creating the simplistic explanation. If John leaves his job thinking only that his boss is a jerk, or Sara leaves her boyfriend because she decides that he is just too self-centered, they are missing some important lessons. What's left out of these stories are the nuances of the relationships and situations. John and Sara neglect seeing the complexity of what has unfolded, they miss their own role in the process, and walk away with little learned for next time except avoiding jerks or self-centered people.

Not using your experience to learn and fine-tune yourself and your life will inevitably leave you falling into the same hole over and over again. 

So there you have it: Self direction is about want not shoulds; proactively and planfully moving towards not merely impulsively running away; leaving with a complex and more balanced explanation you can learn from rather than a simplistic one that just leaves you angry or gun-shy. Self direction is about risktaking, creativity, and reason.

Most of all it’s about discovering and creating the life that best represents you. 

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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