You’ve probably seen post after post of motivational types telling you that you CHOOSE the meaning behind what happens in your life. That is, you can’t be upset by an event unless you CHOOSE to be.
I think that’s a pretty arrogant assertion, myself.
There is a lot of misery out there that people didn’t “choose.”
And it’s pretty hard to spin traumatic events that happen to us at vulnerable times, such as childhood. No child “chooses” to be traumatized in the aftermath of abuse, for example.
That said: there IS a subset of events our lives, the meanings of which we DO get to choose.
And the choices we make regarding what those events MEAN can have a profound effect on how we feel and function every day.
What kinds of events am I talking about?
I’m mostly talking about things that we do that sabotage ourselves.
We ALL do self-sabotaging stuff sometimes. I do it, you do it, everyone you know does it, even if they don’t admit to it.
We do stuff that sets back our goals, stuff that’s incongruent with our values, stuff that we truly wish we wouldn’t have done. It happens in little ways, like cheating on a diet; it happens in big ways, like doing things that interfere with our job performance or important relationships.
No matter how well we’re doing, no one is immune to at least occasional self-sabotage.
When we do self-sabotage, and observe the attendant fallout, THAT is when we have a choice about what that self-sabotage means.
Does it mean we’re bad?
Does it mean our goals are beyond us?
Does it mean our values are too hard to live up to?
It matters, what we decide our self-sabotaging behaviors mean, because it has very practical consequences about what we are and aren’t willing to devote focus and energy to in the future.
If we decide our failures to be “perfect” all the time in the pursuit of our goals and the living of our values means we’re fundamentally “bad,” our self-esteem will take a hit.
If we decide it means that we simply can’t achieve our goals, then we’re probably going to just quit trying.
if we decide it means our values are too lofty, we’ll likely go into an existential funk.
The thing is: our failure to be “perfect” with our behavior at all times very rarely means any of that.
Most often self-sabotage means we’ve run into a situation that has outstripped our ability to cope and manage our feelings. No more, no less.
Self-sabotaging behaviors are usually acts of soothing or desperation. We’re feeling things that we desperately don’t want to feel, and we can’t, in the moment, identify skills or tools to turn the volume down on those feelings. So, we turn to behaviors that may run counter to our goals or values— but which work, in the very short term, to change how we feel.
The temptation is to blow up those behaviors into existential statements about our global priorities…when in fact they usually represent a very practical problem.
You don’t have to give up your goals or values just because you got overwhelmed and didn’t know how to cope for a minute.
And you’re certainly not “bad” because you couldn’t stick with the program 100% of the time.
THESE are the events and decisions the meaning of which we can choose.
We can choose to acknowledge the reality that, even if we’ve momentarily behaved in ways that do not reflect our values and goals, those values and goals STILL represent the fundamentals of who we are.
We can choose to acknowledge the we simply got overwhelmed— and that every does get overwhelmed sometimes. It’s not weak, it’s not “bad,” and it’s note even that uncommon.
And we can choose that this instance of self-defeating behavior is simply a blip on the radar when it comes to the overall project of life development that we’re pursuing.
We can choose whether this defines us, or whether this was an anomaly.
Then we can take the PRACTICAL steps necessary to decrease the chance of it happening again.
We may not be able to always choose what events mean.
But when we can, it’s important that we do.
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