She’s driving me crazy! He doesn’t want to improve our relationship, so there’s nothing I can do. I have to work late. Yet again. I’m not smart. I’m not capable of accomplishing this. I don’t have time for what I really want to do. If only things were different. Why does this keep happening to me???
These are just some of the ways we relinquish our power—to others, to circumstances, to conditions. As psychotherapist Eli Feldman, LMHC, said, “there are a million ways we take power away from ourselves.”
We think that people do things to us. We assume that we have zero control, whether it’s at work or within our relationships. But that’s actually not true. While we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. We can control what we do next. We can control our own actions.
This probably isn’t news to you. You’ve probably heard this before. Many times. But here’s a powerful illustration—the story of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl—from Stephen R. Covey’s seminal book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.
One day, naked and alone in a small room, [Frankl] began to become aware of what he later called ‘the last of the human freedoms’—the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact. He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him. Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.
In the midst of his experiences, Frankl would project himself into different circumstances, such as lecturing to his students after his release from the death camps. He would describe himself in the classroom, in his mind’s eye, and give his students the lessons he was learning during his very torture.
Through a series of such disciplines—mental, emotional, and moral, principally using memory and imagination—he exercised his small, embryonic freedom until it grew larger and larger, until he had more freedom than his Nazi captors. They had more liberty, more options to choose from in their environment; but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison experience.
In Auschwitz, one of the deadliest concentration camps, Frankl learned that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose,” Covey writes. (To learn more about Frankl’s harrowing story and inspiring insights, read Man’s Search for Meaning.)
Whatever is happening in your life, you have the freedom to choose. To choose actions that support your well-being. Actions that help you build a meaningful life. Actions that bolster you (instead of bring you down). These suggestions can help.
Realize and recognize your natural inclination
We have a natural propensity to think that someone else is responsible for our pain. We actually like doing this. “We feel more comfortable knowing that others make us do things, said Feldman, who has a private practice in Miami Beach, Fla.
“It takes away the pressure and the responsibility. It shifts everything off of us.” Because the alternate explanation is that we’re doing this to ourselves. Which means that we have to get help for it, Feldman said. We have to take responsibility. And we may have to make changes and exert effort. Knowing this about ourselves is important because we can anticipate and acknowledge our resistance—and then focus on choosing.
Carry your own weather
Feldman cited Covey’s first habit of highly effective people: Be proactive. According to Covey, people who are proactive don’t let the weather affect their attitude or performance (unlike reactive people, who do). Proactive people “carry their own weather.” To them it doesn’t matter whether it’s pouring or the sun is shining.
Feldman shared this example: When asked “How’s your day?” many people will say, “It’s too early to tell. Let’s see what happens.” The person who carries their own weather says, “I’ll make today awesome. I may have some bumps in the road, but I’ll get through them.”
In other words, we give away our power when we let external conditions control how we are, how we feel and how we think. You can start retaining your power by focusing on the language you use and the stories you tell yourself, Feldman said. Because what we say to ourselves will often come true.
According to Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, when we say “I can’t do that. I just don’t have the time,” what we’re really saying is: “Something outside me—limited time—is controlling me.” When we say, “If only my wife were more patient,” he writes, what we’re really saying is: “Someone else’s behavior is limiting my effectiveness.”
In the book Covey shares examples of reactive versus proactive language, which we can work on adopting: Instead of “There’s nothing I can do,” say “Let’s look at our alternatives.” Instead of “That’s just the way I am,” say “I can choose a different approach.” Instead of “If only,” say “I will.”
This small—but powerful shift—in how we speak to ourselves, about ourselves and about our circumstances helps empower us to respond in ways that work for us.
Often when we try to take back our power in an interaction, the interaction simply happens too quickly. Before we know it, we’re reacting and thinking, “My coworker made me have a bad day!” This is why Feldman suggested preparing ourselves before a potentially triggering situation.
For instance, if your coworker is a certain way every day (e.g., snarky), prepare yourself for the fact that she’ll be snarky tomorrow, too. However, realize that you can deal with this, and in advance, consider another way you can respond, he said.
It also helps to take several deep breaths after something happens. This creates an interruption—a pause—between the event and your response. Which gives you a break to jump off the “they’re making me!” train.
It’s hard to acknowledge that your bad day isn’t your coworker, spouse, child or boss’s fault. It’s hard to acknowledge that you need to take responsibility for how you’re feeling and take action.* But doing so is empowering. It’s liberating and energizing to know that you are the author of your life—no matter the cast of characters or plot twists.
You are not trapped. You are not at the mercy of someone else’s behavior or schedule. After all, you have the freedom to choose.
* Please note that when I talk about how you’re feeling, I’m not referring to a sinking mood or mania or anything else caused by depression, bipolar disorder, or any other condition. Because if you have an illness, you cannot choose your mood or symptoms. However, fortunately, you can choose to get help.