Powerlessness sucks. None of us likes it. But we live in a world that offers enough distractions to allow us to ignore the feelings of powerlessness unless or until they threaten to overwhelm us. We can choose alcohol, drugs, sex, video games, social media and a whole host of other distractions to avoid staring into the face of our insecurities, fears and dissatisfactions – and most of us do this when we feel powerless to change them, either because we don’t know what to do or because we don’t know how to do it.
This week, I was talking to a friend who is having an incredibly tough time at the moment. Her husband and teenage daughter have a strained relationship and it’s causing all of them significant anxiety, to the point where the daughter is feeling levels of anxiety so high they threaten to overwhelm her. The family has reached the point where they all know something has to change but none of them knows how to take the first step.
As someone who wants to help people do just that, I listened to my friend and tried to work out where the ‘entry point’ might be – what might be the first step? Once I had some ideas, I shared them with her but I got the sense that, for her, these things fell under the heading of “advice that could work for someone else.” I hadn’t managed to offer something she could use immediately.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since and it’s helped me articulate a specific problem with the world of self-development. The format we use is to take advice from experts, the notion being “if I copy what they have done, I too can do what they did and have what they have.” In many ways, it’s a great model but in many ways it’s also the model that makes us feel worse. What if the only real message my friend got from my advice was, “If I were in your position, I’d have fixed this by now.”
Even just last year (bearing in mind I’ve been investing in the world of self-development for over a decade) I remember reading the stories and advice of others who gave up drinking. Those stories inspired me but I still failed to put their advice into practice and that made me feel bad about myself. It proved to me that I had a problem – that I was the problem. When you know what to do but you’re not doing it then it’s you who is at fault, right?
Thinking about my conversation with my friend suddenly made me pair two pieces of information and identify what I believe is a fundamental truth about all of our journeys of self-discovery and life-mastery.
- It’s never a straight line between where we are and where want to be.
- We can’t un-know what we know.
I think the interplay between these things has massive implications when it comes to our ability to help each other. If I look just as my drinking as an example – I’ve been talking about how easy it’s been to give up. I talk about the differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’ in an effort to streamline the process for someone taking the journey behind me. “You can do it too! You can do it faster!” I’m trying to turn my ’round in circles’ experience into a straight line experience for someone else.
But what if we’re not supposed to? What if the whole agonising process is part of it?
I wonder whether it’s more helpful to let go of the straight line idea and embrace the ’round and round’ idea. Just looking at my journey, I imagine it to be shaped like a coil – travelling in circles without moving particularly far in any one iteration. I’d read self-help books, listen to advice and feel worse about myself because I wasn’t in a position to take the advice. I simply didn’t feel able. Of course I know (now) that those feelings were down to the beliefs I held and I had to change those first. In many ways, having the knowledge that ‘something better’ was out there made it possible for me to start moving towards it but I had to do massive ground work before I was able to put much of the advice into practice. Knowing I needed to do it and actually doing it were not the same thing. I had to find my own entry point, my own first step.
So my advice to myself, my friend and everyone else would be this. If going around in circles was part of it – if you knew it was normal and that all you needed to do was pay attention to the things you’re learning about yourself and those around you as you go, how might that change the experience? Where would you start if all you had to do was learn something about yourself or each other that you didn’t know before?
It’s easy to look back from a new vantage point and see how you might have made it easier for yourself but, like I said, you can’t un-know what you know. ‘If I had believed that about myself back then, I would have… and it would all have been easier.” Perhaps. Perhaps not. Maybe we need to stop searching for straight line experiences in our efforts to ‘fix’ ourselves. Perhaps we need to accept that we’re not broken. We’re products of our environment, our experiences and our beliefs – and as soon as we start paying attention to those, our own answers about what to do next will gradually present themselves.
Maybe the only first step we need is to be brave enough to face the discomfort head on, to stop distracting ourselves, to feel what we feel, accept that we feel it and go from there.
Image credit: pixabay.com