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The road less travelled - 4/9/2007

So you decided to change, but you don’t know how to do it.   Maybe you can relate to Roger, who said “I only know one thing for certain.  I’m totally dissatisfied with myself.  In fact, I find it increasingly difficult to look at myself in the mirror every morning.  My frustration tolerance is  rapidly decreasing and anger seems to permeate my every interaction.  But I just can’t  see my way clear to be anything other than the way I am.  I’m a wuss of the nth degree.  I hate myself.  I never stand up.  I always give in.  And it isn’t fair.  I’m considerate, I’m kind to a fault.  I don’t want to argue, I don’t want to fight.  I want things to be good.  But my wife isn’t like that.  She’ll go to any length to win an argument, so I’m always afraid to tell her what I think.  Some days she’ll lie in bed all day feeling sorry for herself, not doing anything, not accomplishing anything, then wanting my sympathy.  And I don’t even have the courage to tell her ‘Stop indulging yourself, get out of bed and go do something, you’ll feel better.  I know you feel bad, but staying in bed only makes you feel worse.’  Then I find myself resenting her lying in that bed accomplishing nothing.  I want to shout ‘You don’t begin to feel half as bad as I’ve felt on days that I still went to work because I knew I had to go.’  It would only make her mad and it’ll hurt her feelings and she’ll tell me I don’t understand.  And maybe I don’t.  I don’t even know.  That’s the biggest problem.  I don’t even know when I’m right or wrong.”  

“Last week, she asked me to take the dog to the vet because it was too much trouble for her, the dog was difficult.   And my first inclination was ‘Damn it, I’ve got to work.  You’ve got all day long to go to lunch with your girlfriends, to go to the beauty parlor to get your finger and toe nails done.  Then you have the gall to ask me to do this. And I don’t have the backbone to say no.  And you know the crazy thing about it?  I hate her because I can’t say no.  No, I hate her because she has the gall to ask and expects things to be done for her.  Then there’s me.  I don’t have any feelings of entitlement.  For me, it’s kind of like ‘if you don’t do what somebody wants and you don’t go along with what they desire, then you don’t deserve to be loved.’  That isn’t in my head, I know better, but inside, I can’t stop myself.  I mean, when she asked about the dog, I wanted to scream ‘Hell no!  F_ _ _ you!’  .You know, then I thought about it and I said “I’m in therapy for ‘anger management’  So I’m going to manage my anger.  I’m going to say to myself, what’s the difference?  It isn’t the end of the world.  I can take him, particularly if it causes her problems, because I can handle him.”

“What’s worse is, in a crazy way, that makes me feel like I’m strong and I like that feeling.  At the same time, I feel like I’m giving in.  So I told her no.  I said ‘I can’t do it.  If you want to wait two days, I’ll do it.  But, you know, you can skip getting your nails done and you can take him.’  I didn’t yell like I’m yelling in your office.  I just reached my wits end now.  The funny thing is, she agreed to do it. But then she got that look on her face.  You know what I’m talking about, that kind of sorrowful, pitiful, angry, taken advantage of, imposed-upon look that made me feel ‘bad”  So even though she agreed, when I left I took the dog with me and dropped him off at the vet and said I’d pick him up later. Now I’m so angry at her and at me that I just want away.  I want to get out of this marriage.  I don’t need it.  Let somebody else cater to her.  But I don’t want to lose her and I don’t want to upset the kids and it just seems unfair.  So there, you have it.  That’s where I am.  And I don’t know what to do about it.  I hate being a wuss and I don’t know how to be a warrior.   Even when I win, I wind up turning around and losing.  How can I change?”

“Are you through?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m through.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m not through.  I could go on for the whole hour this way.  That’s how aggravated I am.”

“Well, why don’t you take a breather and let me try to talk to you?  Where you are isn’t crazy.  I suspect that more people have been in your shoes than you could possibly imagine.  No matter how they appear on the outside, how tranquil or how strong, or how firm of opinion you viewed them to be.  Inside, many more people can relate to you than you might suspect.  The first statement that you made which I’d like to comment on is that you can’t change you.  So, let’s take a look at where you’re coming from, because it’s no wonder how frustrated you are.  You’re trying to change the hard drive.  Only you can’t.  What was programmed into you early in life, is there for keeps, for the rest of your life.  It’s similar to the default setting on your computer.  And no matter how “strong” you ever get, if you’re under a sufficient amount of stress, you’ll regress and fall back to that default setting.  You’ll become the wimp, the pleaser, the capitulator, the compromiser, the agreeable good guy, because you want love.  And that little kid inside you is willing to pay any price for it.  And your wife?  She’s essentially in the same place.  She’ll go to any extreme to win the battle, never realizing that she can win the battles in her marriage and her relationships and wind up losing the war.  She’s so afraid of seeing herself as weak that she’ll stubbornly cling to a position even if it costs her the loss of a relationship.”

“Conversely, each time you feel she’s won, you feel you’ve lost, even when you’ve given in of your own volition, because you didn’t give in by choice, or out of strength.  In your own eyes, you view yourself as giving in out of weakness.  Even if it’s the better way to go or the best direction to take, you see yourself as having acquiesced, and you hate yourself and her for it.   Unfortunately, you’re not alone.  There are an awful lot of people in this world just like you.  What you have to realize is that, when you find yourself in those predicaments, you have to press F1 or F3, or God knows what keys, to override your so-called “normal” behavior.  In order to learn to be the person you want to be, you have to change what you are normally.  That’s what causes you to have the difficulties you typically experience, so you have to learn to be abnormal.   But, in the long run, that can prove to be very rewarding.  It can leave you with a sense of power, not over someone else, but over yourself.  

Having said that, let me stress to every one of you who can relate to Roger that you can’t change what’s inside you.  You can’t “fix” it, because it really isn’t broken.  It just happens to be the way you learned to cope.  Now you have to learn to deal with life a little differently, in spite of the hard drive, rather than because of it.  

Two, the competition or problem isn’t with your spouse, your business partner, your friend, your associates or your kids.  The fight you’re having is with you.  Roger could have said yes to taking the dog in the first place if he wasn’t fighting with himself over his feeling that “whenever I give in, I’m a wuss”.  The real problem he has is that he can’t distinguish between when he gives in because he wants to, versus when he gives in because he feels he has to, or because it’s the easy way out.”  So the fight Roger is having is between the emotional little kid inside, the one that’s on his hard drive, and the intellectual, thinking adult that he’s learned to be.  It’s that adult in Roger, and in all of you as well, who has to take control and help you to live in a way that you can survive in a healthy, self-satisfying manner.  It isn’t a question of should he have taken the dog or not, or why, after his wife agreed to do it, did he wind up taking it anyway.  It’s really a case of what behavior best reflects what he feels is consistent with his having a rational self-interest, and will leave him pleased with himself 24 hours later.  

All of which should make you realize that there is no ultimate right or wrong.  Instead, it’s what’s right for you, what will make you content with who you are and what you are and what you consciously want to be, and how you behave.  I could give you a myriad of examples, but one that stands out, perhaps more so than any I’ve ever heard, was an argument between a man and his wife over taking care of their six-month-old child for two hours in the morning.  She requested that he do so.  He indicated that he had to go to work.  She said she needed the rest, she needed the reprieve, she couldn’t handle it anymore.  He dressed, prepared himself to leave for work and, when he came out of the bathroom, he found the bedroom empty and heard a screaming child outside the door.  He opened the door to find their six-month-old child carefully cradled on the floor and his wife nowhere in sight.  He was indignant, appalled, angry and ready to leave the marriage, even though that was the last thing in the world he wanted.  He thought of ways that he could get even, torture her, and inflict tremendous pain on her to demonstrate just how angry he was, he asked himself how could she do such a thing? How could she leave a child there?  How could she use a child in an argument?  What right did she have to do it?  His answer to the question he posed was “she knew she could get away with it, because she knew that there was no way in the world he would leave their baby alone without someone to care for her.”  He felt like a loser.  He felt controlled, whipped, trapped and furiously hostile.  Two hours later, when the nanny/housekeeper arrived, he left the child with her and went to work.  The rest of the day, he accomplished nothing.  He couldn’t get his mind off what had taken place.  He knew he was right.  He knew he was a better person than she, because he would never act in that fashion.  

At the same time, somewhere deep inside him, he was jealous.  He wished that he had the courage to stand up like that and he knew he never could.  He rationalized that he didn’t want to be that kind of person, anyway.  He would never want to be selfish and so intent on having his way that nobody else mattered.  But it certainly emphasized his feeling of weakness and dependency that lingered deep inside him since childhood and it caused him, at a low level of awareness, to have little regard or respect for himself.  At the same time, he knew that if he told the story to a dozen people, they would agree with him that no loving mother would ever do that with a child.  My first inclination was to agree with him, making it thirteen people.  But, did she really jeopardize her child?  Did she know him so well that she had little doubt he’d stay until the nanny arrived?  Was she sure that he would respond to this crying child in the hallway?  The answer to all those questions is “of course”.  In her mind’s eye, she wasn’t putting this child in jeopardy at all.  There was a very adequate caretaker there, who would be there should any problem arise.  After talking with her, it became apparent that she wasn’t about to let her husband control her life.  She had been controlled by a previous husband and by her father and mother. She felt it was time to stand up and tell the world that she had rights, too.  Her needs, desires and thoughts had to be recognized, and what she wanted was just as important as “his almighty job”.  Strangely enough, I could agree with that, too.  

That being the case, you have to take a look at the situation and ask “Who’s right?  Who’s the better person?  Who’s the more loving, caring individual?  Who’s the most considerate?”  Or do you?  Maybe those questions are immaterial.  Perhaps the real question is “Which one was the adult?  Which one was in control of themself?  Which one acted out of a sense of adequacy and feelings of worthwhileness within themself?  The answer is, neither of them.  His emotions and feelings were those of a wounded individual who saw himself as the quintessential loser that he always perceived himself to be.  She, on the other hand, acted as the rebellious, angry teenager she had been in her youth and had obviously never outgrown.  Her need to express her desire to be recognized and loved and to have her thoughts and wishes appreciated by those she cared for were basically honest.  But the way she went about expressing her feelings was as destructive to her as were the feelings inside her husband.  Neither dealt with themself and their own issues.  They allowed their emotions to control them and resorted to the kinds of questions each of us becomes preoccupied with during times of conflict.  Who’s right?  Who’s the better person?  Who won?  Who lost?  Neither of them .  

What they both had to recognize was that facts don’t count, but feelings do.  Therefore, you must first learn to become intimately aware of where you are coming from emotionally.  Then you need to reach a stage in life where you can ask yourself the following question before you act.  “Twenty-four hours from now, will I be pleased with my behavior?”  It is only then that you can determine whether your actions and the way you deal with things are right for you.

There is a third consideration that I’d have you recognize.  It’s a statement I’ve heard on countless occasions that somehow justifies inaction on the part of the person making the statement.  “It’s no use voicing an opinion or telling him or her what I think or feel.  He/she is going to do what he wants, anyway, and you can’t stop ‘em.  Why bother starting a fight, or saying what you feel, it’s only like spitting in the ocean.”  However, my position is that when you have something in your mouth that’s distasteful, you need to spit it out.  Not on the sidewalk or the floor, but perhaps in a tissue.  I think it’s important to realize that you need to react and to say what you think and feel in as healthy and positive a manner as you can.  As a consequence of your statement, no matter how the issue is resolved, you will feel better about yourself for having declared your position, your thoughts and your feelings.  

Essentially, that’s how you go about changing.  On the way, you’ll make many mistakes.  There will be times you won’t say what you feel and you’ll regret it.  There’ll be times you take a stand you would never have taken before, and it’s too strong, too adamant, too controlling, and you’ll come to regret that as well.  But, in the long run, it’s part of the process of growing and growth in itself is the basis for change.  Staying with your normal when it’s been proven to be unconstructive or even destructive to your adjustment in life is never the answer.  It is far better in these instances to “take the road less travelled”.

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