Your Part

Posted on October 3, 2014


There are people in your life who’ve come and gone.  They let you down.  I know they hurt your pride.  You gotta put it all behind, Darling, ‘cause life goes on.  You keep carrying that anger, it will eat you up inside.  Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter

My wife and I went to see Paul McCartney in concert on Sunday night.  It was a great show, but this post is not about that.

While we were driving in a very busy downtown San Diego, we were stopped at the light at J St. and Park.  On my left a taxi was in the process of making a right turn onto J.  On my right was a pedestrian starting to cross the street.  The taxi stopped to wait for the pedestrian.  The pedestrian angrily shouted at the taxi to go and told the taxi driver that he was “holding up traffic.”

I felt bad for the pedestrian.  He may or may not have been homeless, but he did not appear to be well off.  This was not my concern so much as feeling that the way he interacted with others would not bring good things into his life.  If you react angrily when someone is trying to extend you courtesy, it is going to be hard on your relationships.  Holding a job would be difficult if a small amount of provocation causes you to react with anger.  Sustaining a marriage would be comparably difficult.

My working assumption in therapy is that the things that people do and say make sense if you understand the context and what was going on for them.  Something may have happened with the pedestrian in my story that made him particularly irritable.  Now I am not in the practice of diagnosing people that I have not met, but the irritability could also be a sign of depression.

Barring significant mental illness, I have a hypothesis here.  Please hear me out before you dismiss it as insensitive and/or blaming the poor for their plight.  My hypothesis is this: The way we do life (i.e. the way we interact with others, the way we think about things, and the way we manage our affairs) tends to determine where we end up and how things go for us.

In my last post about “living life on life’s terms” my point was that we are not the masters of our own fates and must operate based upon what is.  Here I might appear to be arguing the opposite point.  To some extent that is true.  As with most things in life, we need to be able to manage the tension and the ambiguity between two seemingly opposite ideas.  Here’s the thing.  The way we do life may determine what happens to us relationally and vocationally.  However, the way we do life was learned from our experiences.

Let me offer some examples.  In my prior corporate life, I might sometimes meet someone and by my initial interactions either wonder why they had not moved up more in the organization or conversely how they had achieved the position they had.  What I generally found was that if you spent enough time with the individual it would eventually become apparent.  For those who appeared really talented, but were not moving up, the issue that kept them at the present level would be revealed.  For those who appeared to be in positions that were beyond, their talent would emerge.  This is not to say that there are not bad bosses out there and people who are kept down because of things beyond their control.  Also someone could actually be in over their head or someone could just be in the process of working their way up.  However, my experience is that it is often something more fundamental.

If life has taught you to distrust and rebel against authority, it is going to adversely impact your career and consequently, your socioeconomic status.  If your personal life is always out of control, it is difficult to maintain good attendance at a job, and this too will keep you away from the brass ring.  If you learned from your family of origin that the best defense is a good offense (i.e. when feeling criticized you counterattack with anger), your relationships will suffer for it impacting marriage, friendships, career, and ultimately health.  Depending upon the pedagogy you experienced in life, you may have gotten trapped into patterns that do not bring good things to your life, and never know that it has anything to do with how you interact with your world and the people in it.

There is an old joke that says, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that people aren’t really out to get you.”  There may legitimately be people who do or have done you wrong.  Here’s the thing: you cannot control what anyone else thinks or says or does.  You can only control you.  My point here is not to blame the victim, but to suggest that you may have more agency (i.e. more ability to affect the outcomes for you, more control over your life) than you know.  There is a metaphor we use to encourage partners of addicts to get help for themselves which relates what happened to them to be analogous to being hit by a drunk driver.  Like being hit by a drunk driver, what happened to you was not your fault, but you still need to get treatment for your injuries.

Generally, I find that the things people do and say make sense if you understand their experience.  There are reasons why we do the things we do.  The problem is that those patterns may not be bringing you what you want in life and may in fact be sabotaging your efforts.

If I did not believe that people can change and find more adaptive ways to interact, I would not be in my line of work.  We do not fundamentally change who we are, but we can gain insight and understanding into our own role in keeping us from enjoying the relationships and successes in life we desire.  If there is a big gap between how life is and how you would like it to be, it may well have been initiated by things that happened to you that were beyond your control.  The responsibility to do what you can do to close that gap still rests with you.  That is your part and you dismiss it or delegate it at your own peril.  Learning ways to close the gap between how things are and how you want them to be may require finding mentors or getting therapy.  You can only control you, but you can control you.