Is there a powerful force controlling your life? A force shaping your decisions and limiting your free agency? Could it be that you are totally unaware of this force and because you are oblivious to it, you make no effort to resist it, but rather give in to its power and lose your ability to choose for yourself? What would your life be like if you controlled this force rather than it controlling you?
Let me illustrate. I have a daughter who potty trained successfully, but had an occasional problem of wetting the bed. We talked to our doctor who assured us that this was a common problem and that children usually grew out of it by around age six or seven.
When she was seven years old, she attended a sleepover at a friend’s house. She was too embarrassed to wear her “accident panties” and wet the bed. She was mortified and came home extra early. She cried and told us she would never go to another sleepover, “never, ever again!”
Her bed-wetting had morphed from a “little” problem into a big one.
We went back to the doctor who prescribed some medication. He explained that some people sleep very deeply and when they do, their muscles relax and they wet the bed. This medicine given every night before bedtime would keep our daughter from sleeping too deeply and she would stop wetting the bed.
Driving home, my wife and I discussed the doctor’s advice. We hated the idea of medicating our daughter, but the doctor said we should, and who were we to assume we knew better than a licensed doctor who had studied years and years to know what should be done? Besides, he wore a white coat and had a stethoscope around his neck.
The next day, I attended a meeting with my three coauthors and I brought up the subject. “I was wondering, were any of you were bedwetters? They all looked down at the table a vigorously shook their heads, “No. No. Not me.”
Then one of them asked, “Why do you ask? Were you?”
Now it was my turn to vigorously insist, “No, I was not.” I then told them about my daughter and the doctor’s visit and his prescription.
“Are you going to do it? Give her the meds?” One of them asked.
“Yes, I guess so. I mean he’s the doctor; I really don’t have much of a choice. My daughter’s problem is really starting to hurt her relationships and her self image.”
He grimaced, kind of like he suddenly smelled something awfully foul. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? I mean, not getting a deep sleep, isn’t that what turns someone into a serial killer? I don’t think I would do that to my kid.”
I was shocked. “Well, what would you do?”
“Let me turn this back to you. What would you do if this was a business problem instead of a medical problem?” He asked.
“I guess I would research it.” I replied.
He looked at me and shrugged as if to say, “Kind of obvious isn’t it?”
So, that’s what I did.
Would you be surprised if I told you that I was not the only person in this big world who ever wondered about how to solve this problem? I found over thirty articles and seventeen books about how to stop bed-wetting. Some were folksy “This is how I stopped…” approaches and some were scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals. I decided to organize the advice into a continuum ranging from least intrusive to most intrusive. My wife and I concluded we would then begin with the least and work toward the most until we found something that worked for our daughter. The least intrusive method to stop bed-wetting was to not give the child a drink of water after six pm. The most intrusive was to give your child medication that will prevent them from falling into a deep sleep.
We talked to our daughter about no liquids after dinner. She agreed. The bedwetting problem stopped. Our daughter was proud and happy.
To this day, I am so pleased that we didn’t turn our daughter into a serial killer.
Now, my intent is not to slam our medical services. I am grateful for modern medicine’s blessings; rather, my point is that sometimes we get paralyzed in our lives. We get stuck and feel in our seemingly dire situations that there is nothing we can do; or we feel compelled to take the only course that has been laid out for us to follow. The problem here is not so much our situations as it is our stories about our situation. We tell ourselves stories to make meaning out of our situations and experience. I use the term “stories” to mean our assumptions, our conclusions, our judgments and our paradigms. Stephen R. Covey often said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Our stories not only describe our view of life, they restrict our view of life, they prescript our view of life.
One of the frequent stories we tell ourselves that immobilizes us and causes us to surrender our free agency is called a Helpless story. This pattern of story is characterized by self-talk like:
“There is nothing I can do.”
“I have no options.”
“Nothing I do will help the situation.”
“It doesn’t matter what I do, nothing will help.”
“It’s useless. My situation is hopeless.”
We turn our helpless stories into very clever stories when we use them to absolve ourselves of responsibility. We use these stories to justify inaction or we tell them after the fact to assure ourselves and others that it’s not our fault because we were unable to do anything else:
“I did what I had to do.”
“I had no other choice.”
“He made me do it.”
“There was nothing else I could have done.”
“My vote doesn’t matter.”
When we tell ourselves a Helpless story, we believe we are limited or unable and then we act or fail to act based on that story. Our stories become a powerful force that determines what we do or don’t do and how we feel about it.
Where do our stories come from? Some we inherit from our environment and culture. Our parents teach some of our stories to us. Some of our stories we make up based on our life experiences. I believe one of Satan’s most powerful tools is to control our stories as he did with the evil intergenerational traditions of the Lamanites or the insidious whisper to the addict that she will never escape the clutches of her addiction, therefore she shouldn’t even try.
The principle that enables us to escape the power of our stories is to question our stories. When you feel stuck and confused, or hopeless and helpless, ask yourself a question to challenge your own story. This is a way to think about your thinking and surface unanalyzed assumptions.
When you realize you are telling yourself a helpless story, try this question: What can I do, right now, to move toward what I really want?
Think. Brainstorm possibilities. Be creative. What is a step you could take right now that will move you forward? Look among your options and choose the best one, then do it. If you can just get that far, you are no longer helpless. You’ve proven your Helpless story false. Now, do it again. Identify your options, choose the best one, then do it. You are no longer stuck, you’re moving toward what you really want.
What if you can’t think of any options? What if you don’t know which is best? Seek expertise! You are not the only person who has ever lived on this planet who has your question. Who can help you identify options and help prioritize them? Are there others who have helped people with this problem? Are there books, articles, or studies to read? Have others in your school or neighborhood or business or church dealt with this? Are there classes that you can take?
In the case of helping my daughter, what I really wanted was to help my daughter quit wetting the bed without hurting her or making the problem worse. A step I could take to move toward what I really wanted was to search the literature. The Internet helped, as did discussions with doctors and therapists.
What if you try the best option and it doesn’t work? That’s okay; you’re not helpless, pick the next option and try again.
Let’s walk this through with an immensely difficult case. What if you were abused as a child resulting in a lot of pain and some dysfunctional behaviors as an adult? What you really want is a close, loving, trusting relationship, but you find every time you draw close to someone, you panic and sabotage the relationship.
You tell yourself you are damaged goods. There is no hope. You will never be in the kind of relationship you desire. What do you do?
First, recognize you are not in a hopeless situation; you are just stuck in a helpless story. Next, ask the question: What can I do, right now, to move toward what I really want?
What can you do? Is there anyone who has suffered through your situation and then had happy, fulfilling relationships? Can you learn from them? If you are not sure, how about seeking expertise? As soon as you start looking, you are no longer helpless, you are taking charge!
Is there anyone else who has struggled with this situation that might give you insight, understanding, and ideas? Is there a support group you can access? How about a therapist? A counselor? An advisor? Is there a bishop, pastor, priest, preacher, teacher, rabbi, Imam, parent or neighbor that can put you in contact with experts who have successfully helped others? Are there articles, studies, and books you can research? Pick an option and just do it.
What if it doesn’t work out? No problem, you are not helpless, pick the next great option and just do it. Every step you take is getting you closer to what you really want and further away from the Helpless story that is both a lie and a trap.
Master your Helpless stories and never be helpless or hopeless again.
About Ron McMillan
Ron McMillan is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything. He is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million worldwide. For related content from Ron and his co-authors, please visit www.crucialskills.com.