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Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond
Reach Your Full Potential & Make the Money You Need
By Nancy Anderson
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 Nancy Anderson
All rights reserved.
Ann Rewrites Her Life Story
To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. — CHUANG-TZU
Ann was like most of the seventy-eight million people who are in or beyond midlife: she wanted to use her talent and experience in work that would give her life meaning and purpose (passion clue!) and to make all the money she needed. Her goal was to wake up every morning looking forward to a new day of challenge and growth. But she wasn't sure how to make that dream a reality — she didn't know the specific steps to take and in what order to take them.
Ann's life was an overgrown jungle when she came to me for help with her career and life goals. She was fifty years old and in a troubled second marriage. She and her husband had two spoiled teenagers who pitted the parents against each other. Her environment reflected her mental confusion — even her garage and storage spaces looked like dumping grounds. Ann's inept boss, the son of the owner of the company, expected her to treat him like a crown prince to whom she owed her livelihood. Whenever she suggested ways to improve their operations, he dismissed her ideas as unrealistic.
"I can't figure out why my life is such a struggle," Ann told me when we met in my home office. "All I want is to be happy." She had emailed the first part of her autobiography to me before we met (writing an autobiography of approximately fifty pages is my clients' first assignment, although some clients write longer stories; the length of the project is up to them). After reading Ann's story I wasn't surprised to hear that she was struggling.
"That may be what you want consciously, Ann," I said. "But subconsciously your story is right on track."
"What do you mean?" Ann asked, looking startled.
"I mean that you're following a life script you set in motion around the age of puberty, one based on illogical conclusions you made while growing up in your family," I replied, motioning to the folder on my coffee table that contained the pages of her story. "Disappointment is the outcome you expect. So you keep making choices that guarantee that ending. If you want to change the story, you'll have to write a new ending, with you as the Victor not the Victim."
Thinking of herself as a character in a story whose ending she decided a long time ago gave Ann a new way to look at the past and at her present predicament. It hadn't occurred to her that the irrational decisions she made when she was too young to know what she was doing were the source of her failures at home and work. Ann also was not aware that her life script included men who let her make their decisions and then accused her of being too controlling.
"Why do I keep marrying the same kind of man?" Ann asked wearily. "I thought my husband was different when I met him. He was fun to be with, and he said he liked being with me. But after we were married, he started finding fault and withholding affection and praise. When I set limits with our teenagers, he says I'm too harsh. No matter what happens, it's my fault. I feel like it's them against me."
What Ann was experiencing was predictable, given her assumption that she was responsible for everything. I told her that if she wanted the situation to improve, she'd have to stop what she was doing that wasn't working. As a first step, I suggested she take alcohol out of her system. "A couple of glasses of wine a day can be therapeutic for some people," I said. "But you're using alcohol to numb your feelings. And you need to know what you feel so you can make better choices."
I also asked Ann to start her day with ten minutes of prayer and meditation and to repeat this routine before she went to sleep at night. "Pausing to reflect will help you break the habit of acting without thinking," I said. "As it is, you're on automatic pilot, repeating a story that always ends in failure."
Setting aside time to reflect was not Ann's modus operandi. Her way of solving problems was to jump in and think later; otherwise she felt guilty about not doing enough. When she was still for too long, she started feeling anxious. To distract herself she took on more responsibility. Ann's autobiography revealed that her habit of overextending herself was the way she distracted herself from the chaos in her family, where drinking, fighting, and inertia were the norm. She had not experienced respectful boundaries and conflict resolution, the characteristics of a functional family.
"I see why stagnation is the outcome I expect," Ann said, after we talked at length about the life script concept. "Nothing ever got better in my family. Even now, everything is just as it was in the past. It's the same with me. No matter what I do, nothing gets better. I feel as though I'm waking up from a bad dream. It's embarrassing to think of what I've done to myself and my children."
Remorse is the first feeling that surfaces when my clients become aware of what they have done to themselves and allowed others to do to them. Although awakening from the spell of the script can be a jolt, this shock is the precursor to positive change.
"Well, you can't blame yourself for what you did when you weren't conscious. What's important is what you do now that you're awake," I said to Ann. "The next time your husband asks you what to do, don't give him the answer. Let him think it through or not think it through."
"But what if he accuses me of not caring about him?"
"Ah, so you're afraid he'll think you are an uncaring person if you let him struggle. But isn't it caring to say you know that if he thinks about the problem long enough, he'll come up with a better solution than anything you could imagine?" When Ann looked doubtful, I laughed and said, "You see? You believe he can't figure out his problems. So no wonder you charge in with answers. That's what I meant by stopping what you're doing that isn't working. But don't expect change to be easy. The script won't go away without a fight."
Dismantling a life script is similar to a home remodel that starts with taking down the existing framing. In Ann's case the "framing" was her assumption that people couldn't figure out their problems, a conclusion she made while growing up with people who did not solve their problems. So Ann got involved with other people who didn't solve their problems, because these people were familiar.
Ann and the people close to her were caught in what psychiatrist Stephen Karpman calls the Drama Triangle. They switched back and forth among all three of the roles in the triangle: Victim, Rescuer, and Persecutor, sometimes in the same conversation.
The Drama Triangle is so pervasive that if you listen carefully, you will hear it wherever you go. A conversation may go from "poor me" (Victim) to "let me help you" (Rescuer) to "it's all your/their fault" (Persecutor). The end result of these interactions is always failure, since the goal of a life script is to prove that life is an exercise in futility.
"Start with small steps. This will lead to greater changes," I said to Ann. I asked her not to quit her job in a huff, for example, which is what Ann would have done in the past (as if to say, "I'll show you"), but rather to change her sales strategy. "Your boss's indiscriminate approach to sales is out of date," I said. "Today you have to be selective and build trust with customers, and that takes patience and a genuine desire to serve them. Stop calling on people who take up your time with no return. Instead, target customers who need what you have to offer."
Since Ann's overly conscientious nature also encouraged her teenagers to turn over to her too much responsibility for their lives, I suggested that she moderate her efforts on their behalf. "Your kids are almost adults now, long past the age when they need to be told what to do," I said. "When they 'forget' to do their homework or they're late for school, let them experience the consequences. Set clear guidelines and stick to them, including quiet time for them to recharge their batteries."
And I suggested that when Ann's husband blamed her for anything, she not retaliate. "Listen to what he says without interrupting. If he's right, apologize and correct the problem. If he's wrong, say you disagree and leave it at that. He has a life script too. If you stop trying to change him, that won't fit his script — what he expects of women. Don't look to him for validation. Just notice your reaction when he disagrees with you."
"That's it? I don't understand how that will change things," Ann said, looking puzzled.
"Awareness changes everything, Ann," I said, smiling. "Give it a try. In time you'll see what I mean. If you need to talk about it, call me."
To create a happy ending to their life stories, my clients have to do what feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable, such as trusting their intuition. This is difficult to do when the people close to them are not going through the same process. But if they persist, they learn to live without the need for agreement.
"I know that some people, including some therapists, say partners are supposed to validate each other, that it's a sign of love and support. But that only leads to more enmeshment, not a sense of separate identity," I said to Ann when she looked skeptical. "It's just like in your family: there are no boundaries — everybody's stuck together like a box of melted chocolates. I assure you that once you change for the better, others will adapt or leave your life."
When Ann seemed uneasy, I asked if anything else was bothering her. After taking a deep breath, she confessed she had been meeting a man for lunch. "Nothing's happened," she hastily assured me. "We just meet for lunch. I really look forward to seeing him. He's always telling me how wonderful I am, and this makes me feel appreciated."
"Thank you for telling me, Ann," I said. "If you'd held back this information, the process would have bogged down and I wouldn't have known why. My question is, how do you feel about a man who knowingly spends time with a married woman?"
After she thought for a moment, Ann replied, "I wouldn't trust him."
"And isn't that the script, to fall for untrustworthy men and then get disappointed when they let you down?"
Ann's eyes opened wide. "I never thought of it that way."
The key phrase here is "I never thought ..." Agreeing to meet an untrustworthy man for lunch only reinforced Ann's "men always let me down" script, which put her in the Victim role.
"I realize your emotional needs are not being met by your husband," I said. "But affairs aren't the solution. In fact, they're a distraction. End the lunches; then you'll feel better about yourself."
Since clutter was another distraction that let Ann avoid uncomfortable feelings, I asked her to get rid of everything except what she loved and used. "When you feel anxious about getting rid of some of the stuff, ask what part of the past those items represent. Then think about what life will be like when you wake up and all you see is what you love and use."
I also suggested that Ann cut back on spending. "You and your husband need to sit down and agree on how much money you can save. When you have a cushion, you won't have to make career decisions based on the need for money."
Ann took copious notes while I was talking, as she did in subsequent sessions, dedication that is typical of clients who complete the passion process. By the time they leave their sessions with me, they're already putting the changes I suggested in motion. As Ann gathered up her belongings, she said she never would have made the connection between her failures and fear of the unknown. "But that makes sense. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I didn't know where to begin," Ann said, pausing at the door to my home office. "Now that I'm aware of the script, I can and will change it. I'm not sure who I am, much less what I need. But at this point I'm so desperate I'll do whatever it takes to change."
"That's exactly when we change, Ann — when we're desperate," I said, and we both laughed.
Ann went to work changing her script over the next few weeks. First, she called the man she had been seeing to say there would be no more lunches. Then she set up a schedule to organize her surroundings, since she knew that without a deadline, the project would become another distraction. She went through every drawer, closet, and room in her home, discarding items that had outlived their usefulness.
"Just asking 'Do I love this?' really helps," Ann said when she called to update me on her progress. "Hardly anything meets that criterion. I was really out of touch with myself. I still don't know who I am or what I need, but I'm getting better."
"Better is a realistic goal," I said, and we laughed, since Ann had a habit of setting her goals too high and then feeling discouraged when she failed (this was part of her script).
At first Ann's husband balked when she asked for assistance in the purging process, but when he realized Ann was serious he got on board. Her kids got excited about the project after Ann told them they could split the profits from whatever they sold on eBay. The entire family held a garage sale to get rid of bigger items; the stuff that was left over they donated to charities or took to the dump. Afterward, they celebrated with a dinner at the family's favorite pizza restaurant.
Simultaneously, Ann stopped calling on nonproductive customers and started a campaign to get new ones. Within three months she landed two large accounts, which surprised her boss. By the end of the year, Ann was known as the sales champ in the company. Then the owner started using her as an example of how to sell.
It was harder for Ann to stop telling her husband what to do; old habits die a slow death. But she did better with her teenagers. When they complained, acted helpless, or gave Ann the silent treatment, she spoke from her heart, not her head. "I hope you'll forgive me for teaching you to expect me to do everything for you," Ann said to her teenagers. "That made you dependent on me, so no wonder you're angry with me. I want you to believe that you can solve your problems, and the only way that's going to happen is for you to make choices and learn from them. You're both smart people, and you know what you need to do. I'm here, and so is your father. If you need help or you want to talk, all you have to do is ask."
Easier said than done. But Ann was determined to change, so she corrected herself when she relapsed into old ways, and she tried not to beat herself up when change took longer than she expected. As the months went by, she saw the benefit of letting people learn from their own choices, or not learn from them.
Ann's biggest test came the following Christmas when the family went to her family's home to celebrate the holidays. She had been dreading the visit because she was afraid guilt would push her back into the Rescuer role. But Ann was pleasantly surprised by what happened. "Christmas actually went very well," Ann wrote in a cheery email to me. "I made a decision not to drink this year. I had a glass of wine with Christmas dinner, and that was it. It's still difficult for me to be around people 24/7 for three days straight, but it's much more manageable when I'm not drinking."
Ann called a few weeks later to say she was depressed by the Christmas visit. I told her that given her decision to spend three days and nights under the same roof with people who refused to face their problems, it wasn't surprising that depression was the outcome.
"But I thought I handled the visit so well," Ann exclaimed. "I came away feeling much better this time."
"You did do better, Ann, but where you went wrong is that you hoped others would be better and they weren't," I said. "Once you admitted this, you felt depressed. I think you were feeling happy before the visit because of the improvements you've made, and you felt guilty about that. To right the imbalance, you agreed to go for the visit, and then your spirits sank because nothing had changed. Now you're back in familiar territory, feeling hopeless and depressed."
The purpose I serve for my clients is to put into words what they can't or won't admit. They become more comfortable with honesty as they go through the process of finding their passion. Once they see others as they are, not as they want them to be, including family members, my remodeling work is done, although some clients continue to work with me to maintain clarity and focus.
Excerpted from Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond by Nancy Anderson. Copyright © 2010 Nancy Anderson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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