I’ve led hundreds of workshops on stress management over the years, and many of the participants have wanted to change elements of their lives that get in the way of their happiness.
I initially thought that the information I was sharing could move heaven and earth. After all, I had studied the subject for years and was privileged to know and have learned from brilliant researchers.
I was in for a rude awakening, however. Trying to get people to change behaviors is akin to yelling “stop it” at a dripping faucet. If you don’t try to find the source, it isn’t going to stop. We often have a great deal of trouble finding the source of our problems, because finding it would necessitate confronting ourselves instead of trying to fix someone or something else. It’s hard to acknowledge that we are part of the problem.
Some of us have been victimized and have legitimate reasons to point the finger. However, in the everyday of life, we often forget that we make choices about how to live our lives. We become habituated to our beliefs about our situations, and it becomes harder and harder to extract ourselves from them.
For years, I stayed in a marriage that literally made me sick, because I was afraid of being alone. The ultimate irony was that I was already alone. I had to change my story and realize that I would be much healthier and happier if I was by myself. My decision to leave the relationship ended up being the best thing I ever did.
The following poem by Portia Nelson has always been one of my favorite analogies as to how changing our lives is difficult but doable.
“A Biography in Five Chapters”
Chapter One: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. …I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter Two: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I’m in this same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter Three: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I fall in. …It’s a habit … but my eyes are open. I know where I am. I get out immediately.
Chapter Four: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter Five: I walk down a different street.
My career has taken me on many adventures which have involved different modes of travel.
On one such occasion I was asked to speak on Captiva Island in Florida. I went with a friend of mine, first by air and then we rented a car to get to the island.
Sandy is somewhat of a control freak and so she wanted to drive. I was fine with that since I really don’t care if I drive or not, and so we set out in our rented convertible which we felt would make the trip even more enjoyable.
The day was exquisite and the scenery was beautiful. However, I could tell Sandy was uptight.
I asked her if she was all right and she answered rather tersely that she had to pay attention to the road and the signs so she wouldn’t make any mistakes getting us to our destination. The word “mistake” is not an option for my friend.
As we headed down a curving stretch of the road, she spotted a sign that said: Toll bridge, three miles, three dollars.”
Urgently, Sandy asked if I had any money.
I replied, “I don’t know. Don’t worry. We’ve got plenty of time before we get to the toll to find it.”
In my mind, three miles is three years away.
“I need to know if you have three one-dollar bills.” she said.
“Why? Won’t a five do?” I replied.
“No.” Sandy was starting to get irritated. “That will take too much time. Just look in your purse, will you?”
Well, now we were in trouble. My purse is not just a purse. It’s an abyss.
It’s a large leather object that weighs about 15 pounds. I have enough stuff in it to do electrolysis, open heart surgery, and cook a pizza.
Attempts to hastily retrieve any particular item quickly is a joke. But since Sandy’s face was turning purple, I dug in, looking for the elusive three one-dollar bills.
“Well, do you have them?” she asked.
At that moment, my fingers touched bottom and slid around a trove of coins. “I’ve got lots of change,” I said happily.
Sandy groaned. “We can’t give them that much change. “What are we going to do?”
Her inability to go with the flow was about to give her a stroke.
I casually responded that we could pitch a tent and wait for someone to give us the three one-dollar bills, or just pull a Thelma and Louise to end it all.
The toll person could have cared less what I gave her, and Sandy finally lightened up enough for us to enjoy our time together.
Ultimately we can control nothing. Learn to be flexible.