Read an Excerpt
"It's Your Life":
Free Will vs. the '90s Victim Thing
"Alas, after a certain age every man is
responsible for his face."
A new client, Erica, came to me recently in search of ways to improve her chances for marriage. A 46-year-old, never-married legal secretary, Erica was attractive and assertive and seemed very eager to tell me her story. All the more reason that I was taken by surprise when, after I asked her to tell me about her life, she replied that she had no life. It turned out that much of Erica's time and energy during her adult years had been expended on her parents, a well-to-do couple whose emotional hold on their grown daughter was excessive. As I got to know Erica, it became clear that the responsibility for her family situation rested as much with her as with her parents; while she complained bitterly about their controlling behaviors, she had done little to free herself from their clutches. Contrary to what she had told me on our initial meeting, she did have a life; she simply did not want to take credit for it. Yet, by refusing to be accountable, Erica was sabotaging her opportunities for pleasure and contentment.
Dire circumstances can force individuals to take charge of their lives in ways they never dreamed possible. A timid woman discovers upon the death of her husband that she has a knack for running her husband's business, and under her tutelage, the venture outdoes its prior sales records. A man whose courage has never been tested marshals superhuman strength and leads his condo neighbors to safety during a rampant electrical fire. Diagnosed with cancer, a passive young woman comes to know her ownunexploited capacity to fight the good fight, and buys more time for herself because of it.
But these heroic measures are responses to extreme stimuli. It is less obvious how to tackle the pedestrian responsibilities of everyday life, when the challenges are not especially dramatic and the payoffs subtle or seemingly nonexistent. Nowhere is there a universally accepted instruction manual for correct living, which is why so many people wander reactively through life, without a plan or a point of view, and with no felt sense of their own power.
People inquiring about my services as a relationship coach sometimes display this reactive nature. When they ask what I am going to do for them, and I respond that I am going to help them do for themselves, these folks are perplexed. They were calling for "the answer," as though the key to life lay somewhere "out there." What they fail to comprehend is that the key to getting one's professional or personal needs met "out there" is first to take responsibility "in here." We all know that the answer lies within ourselves, and yet we're all hoping that something or someone will come along to do it for us. People have been looking for someone else to blame since the beginning of time. Indeed, our Creation stories, such as the story of Adam and Eve's exile from Eden, are really about responsibilities and the consequences of our actions, not sin.
Even the most conscientious among us can surrender personal responsibility, often without being aware of it. An example from my own life illustrates the point. When I first began my work as a relationship coach, I was unsure of the marketplace and where I would fit into it. To test my new business, I placed sample ads in local newspapers and magazines. The ad copy, which I had written in the third person, mentioned the name of the business--How to Get Married After 35--and some details about it, but did not identify me personally. Concise and clear, yes, but a bit cold.
I thought the ads were pulling quite well, until my mother, a loyal fan and constructive critic, pointed out that I was passing up business by not taking personal responsibility for my new enterprise. By omitting my name and a first-person appeal to prospective clients--in a venture founded on my own life experiences--I was not only hiding but also forfeiting a chance to connect with people in a more effective way. Once I changed the ads, and in essence went public with my story, the volume of my business doubled. It was my first entrepreneurial lesson in the benefits of being accountable.
Looking back on the roads I have traveled, I am struck by the direct relationship between my acceptance of responsibility for my own happiness and the rewards I have reaped. As a child growing up in a small town in Arkansas, I yearned for the big city, and vowed at a very early age--six or seven--to one day end up in New York. I had never been to New York, you understand, but from movies and picture books I had a vision of it as a sparkling and magical landscape in which I belonged, and some 15 years later, I made the image come to life by moving there.
As a high school student thirsting for adventure beyond the confines of my provincial world, I applied to be a foreign exchange student, amid the hoots and howls of the boys who were my friends and tormentors--the odds of actually being chosen were so grim that they could only chortle at my folly for revealing the scope of my dreams.
They lowered their voices a few notches when the letter of acceptance arrived from the American Field Service and the PA system in the cafeteria announced my imminent departure for a whole school year in France. (It was not just an adjustment for my male classmates, however, but for me as well, for while I had applied for this unique opportunity, I had not thought through the reality of being away from my family for 12 whole months!) The experience ended up being an incomparable opportunity from which I am still benefiting today.
Much later, after working in journalism in New York for some years, I wanted to make a switch to the entertainment business in Hollywood. Clueless about how to get started, I wrote a letter to a movie executive I had never met, a lady I'll call Ms. D., whose recent promotion I had read about in a press release. She had a background somewhat similar to mine, and I wanted to know how she had used it to arrive at her current pinnacle of success. In my letter, I congratulated Ms. D. on her recent promotion and asked if I could buy her a drink, indicating that I'd love some advice on how to turn my career in her direction.