Most of us like to think that usually things happen to us because we’ve made an overt decision – we enroll in a class, then we take the class, we buy certain foods, then eat them later, we drive in a certain direction and end up at our destination. Our mindset is that when these things go awry, its misfortune or an overtly bad decision or mistake on our own part or someone else’s part. And that can be true, but how about the choices we make by not doing certain things or avoiding and denying certain things? How about the role of procrastination in shaping our outcomes?
I worked with a couple awhile ago who were in a war about these other types of choices I call “passive choices.” The husband years earlier had been diagnosed with very high blood pressure and high cholesterol. About 10 years ago he was hospitalized for a burst aortic aneurism, survived it and had a stent put in. He was advised to eat a heart healthy diet and exercise regularly to avoid further cardiovascular problems. According to his wife he initially paid some lip service to those instructions, then proceeded to eat whatever he wanted, drink alcohol liberally, and almost never do any cardio exercise. So it was no surprise to her when last year he needed another stent elsewhere and a repair of the aortic stent, a serious, painful operation requiring extensive recovery and involving lots of caregiving assistance. Needless to say the wife was rips**t! It was clear to her that this was the life he had passively chosen, he wasn’t a victim of bad luck. He couldn’t understand why she had so little empathy for his plight, why so cold? Her retort repeatedly was “You CHOSE this! Your inaction, your avoidance, your denial set the stage for this! What did you think would happen, living the way you did? You CHOSE this life!”
(In this case, the husband’s most recent health crisis sat on top of his history of 40 years of smoking, not heeding warnings from his doctors and dentist, and not stopping until most of his teeth had to be extracted, followed by a disfiguring cancer of the jaw, so the wife’s bandwidth for empathy now was almost nil. It all felt totally predictable to her while he continued to feel like a victim of fate). Predictably, they didn’t have a good outcome in therapy, as she continued to feel like a scolding mother to a childlike man who refused to look at how he was making decisions with his attitude and behaviors every single day.
So, what’s the moral of this sad story? Pay attention to not only what you do in an obvious, concrete way, but also to what you do through inaction or denial.
- Do you routinely put off paying bills until you get charged late fees? If so, you are choosing to create bad credit and financial complications.
- Do you neglect to return calls or emails from family or friends? If so, you are choosing alienation or conflict in those relationships.
- Do you wait for a health crisis to follow your doctor’s advise? If so, you are choosing poor health.
- Do you procrastinate meeting deadlines for tasks at your job? If so, you are choosing to get a lousy review, maybe even be earmarked for the next layoff.
- Do you avoid hot topic conversations with your spouse or partner? If so, you are choosing to create a reservoir of resentment and distance between you two.
- Focus less on your benign intentions and more on how you play them out behaviorally. Good intentions mean very little if your actions aren’t lined up with them.
- Realize that you can be a good person, making some bad passive choices.
- Pay attention to the “handwriting on the wall – early markers of negative outcomes so you can steer in a different, more desirable direction.
- Recognize that you make choices every day, both actively and passively, and that both kinds can create very powerful outcomes.
Most of us have talked about wanting to do or achieve certain things in our lifetime – learn to speak Spanish, remodel the house, write a book of poems, volunteer for a humanitarian cause, take a trip to India, etc. There’s also often a sense of what needs to happen first to make that possible – quit my job, earn six figures, retire, get married, etc. – some future point in time when the stars will align perfectly to facilitate the doing of the thing we claim is important. In the psychotherapy world we call this “destination addiction.”
My “thing” was to be regularly playing our beautiful Mason & Hamlin grand piano with ease and competence. Early in our marriage my husband and I had been fortunate enough to buy the piano for a small sum after it made its way here, supposedly from a castle in Ireland. It was a magical event!
I used to take lessons, and MaryJoyce, my teacher, would exclaim about my large hands and how I was perfectly equipped to play Franz Liszt. It seemed that the piano and I were meant to be a team. Sadly, a few years later, MaryJoyce died and I was so pregnant that it was uncomfortable to sit at the bench, especially now with no accountability to anyone who could witness my musical strivings and ability. So, I stopped playing, and there the sad, majestic piano still sits, unused, reminding me daily of my unfulfilled “commitment.” I look at it regularly with longing from my desk in the “piano room” (which also functions as my home office). I’m reminded daily of my “piano folly.”
I now realize that playing the piano competently has been a sweet story I’ve told myself – a lovely idea, without any renewed infrastructure or resources to back it up, especially since I’ve been taking guitar lessons this last year, honoring a precious gift my family gave me long ago. With my full time private practice and the other realities of my life there aren’t enough hours in the day to dedicate myself right now to both instruments. So, realizing that we make choices in life about where to put our energy and time, I’ve accepted that for now, playing Franz Liszt with facility is part of my “piano folly.” Unlike my commitment to play the guitar, I’ve not hired a teacher, dug up the sheet music, or scheduled in regular tunings and the time to play the piano. A passion without a plan to make room for it, is just a dream.
So, if you’ve also dreamed about doing or achieving certain things in your life, make sure you avoid self delusion, (“piano folly”), by creating some accountability, first to someone else who will take you seriously and hold you to your dream when you get discouraged, but most importantly, accountability to yourself – an action plan, tools, markers of stagnation or change, so you make your dream come alive.
In my case, it’s not the end of the road for the piano and me. When I’m ready to fully commit with not just longing, but with action, Mason & Hamlin and I will make lovely music again together.
Who wants to get up at the crack of dawn, leave a cozy, warm bed, get into a workout outfit and head to the gym for an hour of exertion and sweating?
Who wants to spend a Saturday doing the books and paperwork for their self-owned business, instead of listening to music, romping in the woods, or hanging out, eating and drinking with the people you enjoy?
Who wants to come home after eight grueling hours at the office to walk the lonely dog, answer twenty overdue emails, and cook dinner on demand?
Who wants to spend a whole beautiful Sunday afternoon in July visiting a sick friend who’s in the hospital an hour away?
Unless you’re an obsessed athlete, a compulsive accountant, a precise rule follower, or an unconscious co-dependent, you’ll probably be thinking “NOT ME!”
So, the big question becomes: how do you get yourself to honor your “Shoulds”? How do you motivate yourself to do the right thing, taking care of the not-so-fun parts of your life which require attention? How do you attend to your connections and responsibilities to your friends and family when doing so may be tiring, and not very glamorous or convenient?
Here are two of the six useful tips I’ve learned and shared with clients which I’ll be discussing in the 20 minute podcast on Wednesday 4/3/19 at 8:30 PM EST:
1. Connect with your deeper, less momentary motivation. Think about the big picture and why doing this thing is nagging at you? Will you be creating a big mess by avoiding it? Will someone else get hurt or offended if you blow this thing off? Is there a health issue which needs to be addressed in some regular way? Or, is this “Should” an unnecessary, illogical, guilt-driven piece of head noise?
2. Try to automate this activity if you can, as with exercising daily.Build it in and make it part of your schedule. By doing this you reduce conflict by pre-empting some bargaining on your part. When you automate things you spend less time thinking about how boring or annoying they may seem, (like brushing your teeth). The Nike company made multiple millions with their “Just Do It” slogan for good reason!
So, if you relate to this issue and want the other four tips about pushing yourself when it’s the grown up thing to do, tune into this brief podcast at BlogTalkRadio.com/SusanLager
*If you’d like to join me live on the air with questions or comments call into the studio at 877-497-9046.
So, here’s a pretty gruesome picture of my poor thumb almost severed. Before you vomit or faint, please read on, so you can avoid creating a similar mess. (This is less of a story about blood and pain and more about how it happened).
My husband and I live in a lovely 40 year old home which has needed some window work for about the last 15 years. The windows are beautiful, all wooden framed and large, but all are what’s called “guillotine” windows. Guillotines used to be used for chopping off people’s heads, mostly during the French Revolution. When you’re referring to a window that way it unfortunately functions in the same manner – if you don’t hold onto the top window while opening the bottom one, whatever is underneath gets chopped off, in this case almost my whole thumb, as per the nasty picture above. Fortunately, I got to the ER in time for the docs to sew the laceration back together, and now, three weeks later it’s all in one piece again.
The moral of this little story, however, is that my husband and I used avoidance and denial about the window problem for many years rather than doing our research and finding out if, in fact, they all needed to be replaced (to the tune of about $30,000.) or if we could have them repaired (cost: $3000. and one intact thumb). We just pretended the problem wasn’t really one, as we routinely positioned blocks of wood to keep windows open, or hammered top windows shut. It felt like one of those totally un-fun expenses, like getting a new septic tank or a new well, so we avoided it. The irony is that I pulled this little stunt at the beginning of the evening of my husband’s birthday, so we “celebrated” him in the ER this year.
If you too have any issues which you’ve been coping with through avoidance and denial, it might be time to ask yourself what the ultimate price may be for your “problem solving” strategy. How might you be victimizing yourself in the long run? Who else might be negatively effected if you keep pretending the problem isn’t really such a big deal? Might you be making a mountain out of a mole hill the way we did? Do you too have any body parts which might ultimately be compromised if you keep putting things off?
Think about it, and figure out some real solution to the problem…
Don’t miss my next BlogTalk Radio episode on Thursday, August 24th at 8:00 PM EST. It will be 20 minutes of discussion about the signs of unfairness in relationships, and how to remedy the situation.
Tune in live at 877-497-9046 to join me on the air with your questions or comments.
Don’t miss this 20 minute information-packed episode, especially if you’ve been accused of behaving unfairly, or if you’re on the receiving end of unfair treatment and don’t know how to handle it.
If you can’t make the live episode you can hear the recording at: www.BlogTalkRadio.com/SusanLager