I did business with someone to the tune of many, many thousands of dollars. Long story short? They didn’t deliver on what they sold me on, and after I spoke up about that, they took to social media to be passive-aggressive about it.
I was hurt. I was pissed.
Months later, I noticed that whenever I thought of the person or situation, I felt hurt and pissed all over, again. So I decided to take my own medicine, and do something (courageous) about it: I’d see where I could take radical responsibility and completely own my part, and release anything that I knew was not mine. I started by asking myself, “Where were the red flags that I ignored?”
And pretty quickly, I felt…stupid.
I felt stupid because prior to hiring, I’d known about multiple integrity issues: gossiping and divulging personal information about employees, close friends, and other clients.
I felt stupid because I knew of people who had worked with the person, but hadn’t elected to re-hire, and I’d never investigated why.
I felt stupid because mid-way through the project I knew that the pace wasn’t really working, and had brought this up, but had decided to believe them when they said, “No, no, this is all normal, don’t worry.” Even though everything in me said, “This doesn’t feel right,” I subverted my own intuition.
I knew all of that, yet continued on with the hiring and then the submitting of payments.
Who had made the choice to hire someone who had shown these issues? Me. Who had elected to continue submitting payments to someone even when I wasn’t happy with the work? Me.
That’s…kind of stupid.
Now, here’s the thing: what’s not mine is the lack of integrity. What’s not mine is the inability to deliver on the results they were selling.
When you choose to take radical responsibility, you acknowledge what’s not yours–but ultimately, you keep the focus on what is yours. Why? Because that’s where you’ll find peace (after feeling distinctly uncomfortable)
Radical Responsibility is Courageous
That’s why taking radical responsibility is courageous: you might see some things that are hard to see about yourself, and feel the discomfort of that. When I asked myself the simple question, “What are the red flags that I ignored?” the evidence that this hadn’t been a good idea was overwhelming. I had been making certifiably stupid choices, starting with the fact that things hadn’t felt right in my body, and I’d ignored that fact.
It’s hard to feel stupid.
So…I decided to write a declaration that would lead to my own freedom. At the top of the page, I wrote in all capital letters: “READ UNTIL IT NO LONGER BOTHERS ME.” Then I wrote down all of the things I had known prior to hiring that would have indicated it was a bad idea, and all of the choices that I had made that had co-created the situation, that were totally my responsibility.
To release the hurt and resentment that I felt about the situation, I was willing to read this declaration out loud for as long as it took, even if it was to the end of time.
Really, though? It only took a week.
Radical Responsibility Leads to Peace
We aren’t really ever hurt by others, or mad at what they did. We’re pissed off at ourselves. Again and again, it usually all boils down to subverting our own intuition.
In this case, I knew better–in my body–but didn’t treat that evidence as “enough.” I kept looking for logical justifications for why the situation wasn’t right. And, I guess, because I was looking for evidence, my evidence that this situation was royally screwed up showed up in a pissy social media post aimed right at my head.
“That’s the best gift they ever gave me,” I’d later tell a friend about the situation, “Because it was so over-the-top unkind, I became clear in an instant that I was walking away.”
Getting clear on why I’d walked into that mess in the first place was also important. When we don’t take time to evaluate why we did what we did, and when we don’t create space for releasing it, all of that muck just sits around as background noise, siphoning energy.
Taking radical responsibility is courageous because it pushes you to look at the things that are hard to look at. But once you’ve moved through that, it brings peace; the peace of knowing that it all happened how it did, you owned your part, and now you’re ready to move on.
When people start getting into self-help, inevitably they examine their family of origin. Where did I learn these patterns? Who taught me to be afraid? Why do I keep doing this thing, over and over, even when I try to stop?
“My mother always told me to be realistic, so that’s why I have so much trouble taking risks.”
“My father left when I was two, so that’s why I don’t trust men.”
“I was abandoned and put up for adoption, so that’s why I can’t form deep, personal connections.”
Here is the duality to hold:
The people who raised you absolutely did instill belief systems and habits that affect you in the present day.
You deserve better than a life spent blaming your parents for your current-day problems.
Important: this is nuanced. You really do need to hold both of these concepts, at the same time. Otherwise, people tend to fall into two polarizing camps.
Camp Parents Done Me Wrong endlessly investigates the past and spends untold hours and thousands of dollars with helping professionals trying to figure out the whys of it all–and even if they say they no longer blame their parents, a little digging usually reveals that yeah, they totally do. The sadness lays at someone else’s feet. The anger isn’t usually far behind.
But in the other camp, Camp Get Over It, there’s a lack of compassion for the past. They look at anyone processing past issues and think, “Why can’t they just get over it and move on with their lives?” All the while, people who rigidly spend time in Camp Get Over It often push their own personal pain farther down, making it harder to directly access, and the pain leaks out in small, subtle ways such as an inability to deeply connect with people, or low-grade anxiety or irritation.
Both camps are using a defense. One is using the defense of victim, and the other is using the defense of putting up a shit-ton of armor. Victims are feeling everything (and feeling decimated by the overwhelm of what they feel), and people wearing armor are desperately trying not to feel (and living half a life, in the process).
When someone is squarely in one camp, any helping professional who confronts their old pattern will be suspect. Camp Parents Done Me Wrong will feel betrayed and furious with a therapist, coach, or friend who suggests that they are in charge of their lives, now, and are empowered to do something about it.
They’ll feel betrayed because after all that time being listened to and understood, now someone is suggesting that they take an action that all past experience has suggested really isn’t possible. Take responsibility for my life? After all that I’ve been through? How could you suggest that, knowing what you know about my past?
Camp Get Over It will use every defense in the book to avoid feeling their feelings and examining the past. I’m not into this woo-woo stuff. The past is the past, so leave it be. What’s the point of bringing up feelings about something that happened years ago? Camp Get Over It usually only ends up in therapy because their partner dragged them to it when the relationship is on the brink of divorce, or substance abuse has threatened a career, or when life throws a curveball they can’t control and suddenly they are haunting the hallways of their houses every night with insomnia.
The Power of “And”
You need to know why your past influences your current patterns, AND you need to take responsibility for making different choices.
You need to feel your feelings about your past, AND you need to cut the shit and be intentional–stop ruminating on what happened to you, years ago.
It’s not an either-or equation when you’re figuring out how to make peace with the past . Knowing why you feel fear, hesitate to take risks, and all of the Stories that play in the background when you make a decision is valuable information. Seeing the patterns clearly helps you to recognize when you’re about to go back into one, purely by default.
Just take care that you add the “and.” You understand what happened then, AND you’re choosing differently, now.
Right here, right now, you’re an adult. You’re probably not living underneath a parental roof, anymore. You decide how you spend your money, what you put in your mouth, whether or not to take that drug, whether or not to stay in the safe job or strike it out on your own.
In other words, you’ve got the keys to your own freedom. Not your parents. Not your past. Not the stuff that happened to you, then.
You’ve got the keys. You’re the only one who can use them to unlock yourself from whatever you don’t like. So do it.
“Well…this is what I have to work with,” I’d think, followed by a heavy sigh. Money, friends, jobs, time–not enough, it doesn’t feel quite right, but…this is what I have to work with. Whaddyagonnado? This is…it. Another heavy sigh.
Life had a lot heavy sighs, delivered daily.
Now, from a purely pragmatic perspective, we need to find ways to work with what we’ve got, and still be happy, because life does dish up some dozers and losers. Our grandparents are on to something when they shake their heads at us crazy kids (!), endlessly unsatisfied with our hungry ghosts and search for meaning. Keeping yourself from being happy until all of the pieces are perfectly in place is just perfectionism.
But there’s a difference between deciding, “I’m going to work with what I’ve got” and…settling.
How do you know the difference?
First: “I’m going to work with what I’ve got” and “Well, this is what I have to work with” carry completely different energies. The former reflects a choice, the latter a heavy sigh and throwing up one’s hands in futility.
Second: Settling carries with it the implicit assumption that better options don’t exist, and you can’t create them. It’s a scarcity mindset of epic proportions, and when it infuses your life, you start seeing everything through dull, settling-tinted glasses.
Why We Settle
We settle because we’re afraid. When you’re settling, you’re afraid of being left with nothing. Faced with the possibility of having nothing, the voice in your head goes: Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive. Maybe this isn’t a big deal. I can figure this out. I’ll try harder. I could be wrong, I could be missing something. Maybe if I rework this in my head, I’ll find another option.
We’d rather stay with what we know and convince ourselves that we must have it all wrong, than step out and take a massive risk–the risk of doing everything, differently.
I’ve done this with jobs I hated, friendships that weren’t working, and assuming that the numbers in my bank account couldn’t go any higher than Just Getting By.
I can’t quit the job–what if I’m left with nothing?
I can’t quit that friendship–what if I’m left with nothing?
I can’t take that financial risk–what if I’m left with nothing?
Being “left with nothing” creates a temporary empty space. You leave that relationship? Empty house at night; no one to call if the shit hits the fan. You leave that job? Empty bank account. You stop doing things according to habit and routine? Well, then, what would you fill the hours with?
We’re afraid to clear that empty space because we don’t know what is on the other side of that wide expanse.
Most of us use pain as a motivator. We put up with the stuff that sucks, until it gets bad enough to reach a breaking point, at which time the empty space seems like a respite. When the relationship sucks enough, an empty house feels like a respite from being on the Crazy Train with your paramour. When the job sucks enough, you’ll quit and live off of a severely reduced budget or credit cards if you have to, and the interest will feel worth it until you find something that is your true calling.
The most successful people, however? They’re the people who are willing to step out into that wide expanse, and they don’t wait for things to get intolerable before they do. Yes, they’re afraid–we’re not talking that bullshit fearless stuff–but they know that settling is a self-imposed punishment.
They also understand something else: no one gets to circumvent the growing pains of change. The thing is, the people who wait until life gets intolerable before they take a risk aren’t coming out ahead.
Waiting until the shit hits the fan before you’ll take action is like putting yourself in front of a firing squad before you’ll decide to really, value your life. You have a lot less time.
You don’t have the time that you think you do. None of us do.
Every day, someone is waking up to a life that they regard as totally ordinary–leaving pajamas on the floor, grabbing a cup of coffee, heading out the door–and not all of them are coming home. And chances are good that not many of them are thinking, “If I knew today was my last day, I’d pay a helluva lot more attention.”
I’m going to hazard a guess that you woke up this morning without that thought crossing your mind, either.
The awareness of our limited time can cause us to shrink in fear, or cause us to expand with courage.
When you expand with courage, you step into creation: you create the escape plan, you create the new blueprint for where you’re headed next, you make the amends, you stop telling yourself that what you want isn’t possible.
You’ll still be scared shitless. Absolutely. But life will feel radiant, awake, and full of possibility.