Be the Hero in Your Own Story

Posted on June 30, 2013


This is the third post addressing the idea that each of us is somewhere on a continuum between assigning causation for the events in our lives internally (to ourselves) or externally (to others and circumstances).  The essential question here is, “When something happens in your life, do you tend to assign the credit or blame to yourself or to others and the circumstances?”  My assertion is that health lies between the extremes.  Last week’s post, “Extend Yourself Some Grace,” examined the possible dangers of being too extreme in assigning the credit or particularly the blame internally.  This post is looking at the other end of the spectrum.

Early animal experiments in behaviorism discovered a phenomenon called “learned helplessness.”  Essentially, if an animal is placed in an experimental situation in which an adverse stimulus (e.g. electric shock) is unavoidable, the animal learns that there is nothing it can do to help itself.  Later, if the same animal is placed in a situation where it could easily escape the adverse stimulus, it will not even try.  The animal has learned that its circumstances are completely beyond its control.  It has learned helplessness.

A similar phenomenon happens with humans.  If life has taught us that we can do nothing to improve our lot, we give up trying.  In such situations, depression and anxiety are understandable responses.  After all, the way humans respond generally makes sense if we understand the context and their experience.  This is one of the ways we wind up on the end of the continuum where we attribute the causality for events outside of ourselves.

Another path to the external extreme on the continuum can be that life experiences may have made it too painful to look at our part in our situation.  Looking at my own contribution to my circumstances forces me to acknowledge my role in arriving at a painful place.  There is a fine line here between taking ownership for one’s own part in bringing about one’s circumstances and blaming the victim.  By way of example, partners of sex addicts did not cause their partner’s addiction, they can’t control it, and they can’t cure it.  At the same time, for partners, it is healthy to get your own care and to look at your part in the relationship.  The drunk driver analogy applies here.  If you were hit by a drunk driver, it is not your fault, but you still need to take responsibility for getting treatment for your injuries.  Alternatively, if some of your own life choices have brought you to a bad place, it may be too painful and/or shameful to own your role in your circumstances.  It is less distressing to blame outside circumstances or other people.  Further, if you came from a family where a) perfectionism was required, b) mistakes were harshly punished, c) failures were not allowed, and/or d) a victim mentality was modeled by a parent, you might have learned to deflect responsibility to circumstances and people outside of yourself.

A third issue here is tunnel vision.  A little personal testimony might be in order here.  I will confess to being very linear in my thinking about my own life.  It is much easier to see outside the box solutions when looking at someone else’s situation than when looking at my own.  A number of years ago, I had moved my family in order to take a job that I found that I hated (it was the most oppressive corporate environment I ever worked in, but that’s another story).  Several months into the job, I am in the kitchen one morning packing my lunch when my wife comes in from her morning walk.  She takes a look at me and asks, “Are you alright?”  I told her, “No.  I hate what I am doing.  I feel trapped, and feel like I can’t make another job move this soon.”  She said, “You’re not trapped, and if you want to go home, we’ll go home.”[1]  For me, this lifted the weight of the world from my shoulders.  I had been so trapped in the tunnel vision thinking of trying to make the current job situation work out, I had not adequately opened myself to the alternatives.   It was a joyous day a few weeks later when I had a job offer back in San Diego, and I got to tender my resignation.  My point here is that I sometimes find a similar dynamic with clients.  One can get so caught up in the current situation that it is difficult to open your thinking to broader solutions.  Problems look so big when we are close up, that they can block our view.

Whatever your circumstances, whatever the gap is between how life is and how you would like it to be, there is an opportunity to take action to improve your situation.  You can still be the hero in your own story.[2]  If you are reading this, your story is not yet finished.  In all of the great hero stories, there are setbacks, and situations are often at their worst before the moment of breakthrough and triumph.  Also, there is usually a mentor who challenges, trains, and encourages the hero.  Accept the call.  Find the mentor if you need the outside perspective or help.  You may have more power to direct your own story than you think you do.

[1] My professor in grad school told me once that my wife was my therapist.  I think he is right.  Actually, I think that is even a goal for couple’s therapy.  When the couple can do for themselves, what I do for them in therapy, they don’t need me anymore.  But I digress.

[2] In a future post, we can take a look at the hero’s journey.