Jess has been with Sam for several months now and things are going…ok. She tends to let Sam take the lead, going along with his suggestions and wants, and says to herself that she likes making him happy. The few times she has spoken up, he has quickly dismissed her ideas. She resents his doing this, but doesn’t say anything about it.
Eric is one of those guys with always the quick fuse—road rage, impatient, and stomping off if stuck standing too long a line. Recently, however, he apparently reached a new level where he was severely disciplined at work for blowing up at a supervisee.
Whenever I first meet someone in my practice, be it individuals or couples, I always ask myself and often them, “What keeps you from solving your problems on your own?” Sometimes it is because at this particular time life is just too overwhelming—there has been death or they have been laid off from their job; they need support to grieve, to talk it out, to help break down all that is piled up on their plate into smaller pieces and gain some perspective and traction.
But more often it’s not about situations but about emotions—an emotional stuck-point that keeps them from running their lives better, that keeps them from solving problems, that makes relationships stall out or lead to the same endings. This is Jess who is overly accommodating with Sam, but not just with Sam—with friends, family—and resentments or feeling unappreciated or like a martyr remains a steady undercurrent. This is Eric who snaps at slow salespeople or his wife when she shows up five minutes late.
So the question on the floor is: What is the one thing that you can’t seem to do that gets in the way of running your life better and accomplishing what you want? What is the one thing that if you were able to do it would have biggest positive impact on your everyday life?
Generally the answer isn’t dozens of things, but circle around a handful. Here are the top can’t-do contenders:
#1. Handle confrontation / conflict / anger. This is Jess’ stuckpoint. She goes along with Sam because she doesn’t want to take a chance of getting him upset. She absorbs his hurtful behavior because she fears that her saying anything would lead to some terrible argument.
#2. Control your anger. Here’s Eric who sprays his anger and irritation around the room rather than calming himself down and using it as information to tell him what he needs. But expand this and we are talking about the larger concept of emotional self-regulation—the ability to calm and sooth yourself when your emotions—anger, anxiety, whatever—begin to take over.
#3. Know what you want. Jess may be struggling with this as well. Folks like her know what they should do—be nice, be responsible—and go on autopilot knocking things off the mental checklist always running in their heads, but struggle when it comes time to know on a gut level what they truly want. So instead they wind up following other’s lives and passions, or stay the ever-responsible one who never truly gets what she really wants and needs.
#4. Take decisive action. This takes the form of ongoing waffling and ambivalence or simply not doing. Underneath is a worry about needing to know in advance that the next step is the right one—that others will approve, that the outcome will absolutely be what you hoping for—or it is about despair, feeling trapped, depressed, a why-bother-it-won’t-matter-attitude.
If you want to move forward in your life you need to…move forward. If you want something to change, you need to do something different. Take action and see what happens next. If you don’t, guess what, nothing is likely to happen next.
#5. Live in the present. You’ve undoubtedly met people like this—always dredging up or replowing the fields of the past, or always looking with binoculars for the bomb that they fear is inevitably going to go off in the future. They are difficult to be around because the past pushes them into the gutters of depression and guilt, while the head in the future fuels anxiety and worry. They are miserable. While we all can go down those roads, the trick is catch it, be able back out of them, and get grounded in and gain perspective in the present.
#6. Forgive others. Those scenes from the Godfather movies come to mind—the “You’re dead to me” line. Those who hold grudges, who can’t let go and forgive not only wind up living a good deal of the time in the past nursing old wounds, but have a life of cutoffs, resentment, loneliness. The holding onto grudges means that problems are chopped off rather than solved, problem-solving skills are never developed, and hurts are replicated over and over.
#7. Forgive yourself. The critical self, the parent with the ever-wagging finger in our heads, the never being good enough, always the loser, the person who doesn’t deserve_______ (fill in with your favorite incrimination). If there is no way you can, in your mind, win, deserve, or be good-enough, then you, not surprisingly, are never going to win, deserve, or be good-enough. The way forward is action and learning not to listen to the inner voice.
These seven are the ones that immediately come to mind; you may think of other variations that particularly seem to fit you. The question remains: What is one thing you can’t seem to do? Can you see where it holds you back from running your life better and achieving what you want?
If there is one that you identify with most, the next step is obvious. You need to figure out what you can do in order to do what you feel you can’t do. This may be getting therapy, maybe learning skills, and gaining perspective by reading more about it. Maybe you need support, the sideline coach or cheerleader, to help you take baby steps and move against your grain.
Jess, for example, may realize that she needs to learn to speak up and not just go along. She can start by opening her mouth when her cubbie-mates at work wonder aloud where to go for lunch; she can take the risk of actually going back to the guy behind the counter at Starbucks when he gives her the wrong change. If Eric realizes he needs to get that anger under control he can read a book on anger management, see his doctor for possible meds, check in with himself 10 times a day to monitor his mood so his irritability doesn’t creep up on him.
So sit down with yourself and try and figure out your own Achilles heel, that stuckpoint, that one spot that always does you in. Then rationally come up with a plan. It doesn't matter where you start as long as you start and stay focused. There are no mistakes.
By doing what you can’t you will eventually discover everything you can.