Can You Keep Your Head When Others Are Losing Theirs?

Developing a solid sense of self

Posted Oct 19, 2017

For the purposes of this article I have borrowed a quote from Rudyard Kipling's poem, If—“If you can keep your head when those about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” So in this article I’m going to deal with keeping your head, your sense of yourself and steering your own course when people and circumstances around you conspire to make this difficult and you start to doubt yourself or wobble. Additionally, I want to look at “blame” which incidentally I consider a completely useless concept, rather like guilt.

Some people have a strong sense of self with their “locus of control” firmly in their own grasp. This will usually be a result of upbringing, environment, and personal outlook. Good adult carers will seek to give us a sense of worth, consistent rules, reasonable expectations, firm boundaries, and consequences when we deliberately flout these. Eventually, these adult carers will start to pass over the responsibility for decision making and organization to us as we go through adolescence so that eventually our “locus of control” or internal adult self becomes solid and reliable and part of who we are. We do not look for external cues or approval. We end up trusting ourselves, our beliefs and our instincts and are not easily deflected from our goals unless another party has a good, reasonable and logical argument.  We are definitely open to suggestions but we know who we are, what we believe and how we behave.

Unfortunately, this sequence of events doesn’t occur for everybody and you can end up having hardly ever had to take responsibility for yourself because you were an untrusted and untried adolescent. Or, by contrast, as having to have had to grow up way too early so that your “internal adult” is actually still 11 or 14 or whenever you had to take over too quickly for your development. If this is the case for you, your internal focus and sense of solidity will be susceptible to external influences, both good and bad and you will find yourself vacillating or adapting to the situation you find yourself in, in order to please others or fit in or simply because you do not have a firm sense of what you should or shouldn’t be doing.

If you have lacked a solid start then you need to start parenting yourself well.  Understanding that the most credible judge of you and your needs is you, is paramount. You can test your theories and learn (like any adolescent) what works, what turns out well and what doesn’t make sense for you and your goals. In this way, you can nurture and grow your own “internal adult” which will become your compass. Once you feel more solid and secure, having tried and tested yourself, made good decisions and had good outcomes as well as learned from mistakes, you will be less likely to waiver or wobble and will have a good understanding of how you behaved or behave and why.

The quote goes on to conclude “…and blaming it on you.” What is blame for? I, personally, think it is completely and utterly useless. Instead, we need to adopt an attitude of inquiry and improvement. If things go badly wrong then we need to ask “What happened.” “How did that work out for you/the company/etc?” “What have you learned and what would you change next time?” These questions allow the other person to see where they went wrong and to learn from the experience. If you ask “Why did you do that?", the unspoken part of the sentence is “you idiot.” It is very parental to ask why and people who have come from a background where everyone is held to account, accused, blamed, and/or punished will tend towards this behavior. Don’t do it. It is counter-productive, people will not want to do anything for you, you will find it hard to delegate, and nobody around you can learn from their mistakes. 

If you come across someone who is a blamer, the best question to ask them is “What would you have liked me to do?” and then agree that that is what you will do in the future—job done! Do not get into the why's and wherefore's of an incident or occurrence as a righteous blamer will take it to the bitter end to no good purpose; don’t waste your time or engage in these practices or conversations—move on and model a better way of responding and being. Adults know there are not two ways to do things “The right and the wrong way”. There are many different ways to arrive at the end result and if we are relaxed and enquiring we can learn useful alternatives and foster a sense of personal growth and inquiry in the people around us, particularly if we are parents.

If you know Rudyard Kipling’s poem you will know how it ends with the conclusion “and what is more, you’ll be a man, my son.” I like the alternative ending that I have prepared which is “and what is more, you’ll be a fully rounded, empathetic human with a great sense of your adult self.”  Unfortunately, my version doesn’t rhyme or scan—just as well I’m not a poet then!