Are we really in charge of our lives, or a mere product of circumstances? Why can’t we be like some of the outstanding activists in our midst? Is it just a matter of getting rid of the fears that hold us back? And, how do we know when have we done enough? Let’s explore this and more.
What Makes Us Tick?
Obviously, we are all born with a clean slate, spontaneous, and uninhibited, totally ready to be shaped into exemplary members of society by our well-meaning mentors – parents, teachers, bosses, partners, and others. But, despite dealing with the most complex organism on earth, they received no instruction manual for shaping our future.
Actually, it wouldn’t matter, for their primary and immediate mission is to control our behavior – for our own protection, but also for their own interests. And they all seem to know the most effective tools to do just that: guilt, shame, conditional love, destructive criticism, humiliation, and punitive restrictions. And they apply those tools so effectively to constantly pound into us all the things we can not do: sleep on your tummy, touch the stove, open the medicine cabinet, go outside, talk to strangers,… because we are too little, too helpless, or just too stupid.
The problem is that all these highly effective controlling devices leave a permanent mark on our psyche. They basically shape our self-concept that consists of our self ideal (who we would like to be), our self-image (who we think we are), and our self-esteem (how do we feel about who we are). They lead us to formulate and adopt the fears, the stories, and the winning formulas that simplify our life, but severely limit our potential.
Our Fears, Stories, and Winning Formulas
And just what are all these fears, stories, and winning formulas. And how and when do we use them?
Our fears may be identified by the expressions we use to let them control our actions. Here are ten examples, in alphabetical order:
• Fear of change – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
• Fear of confrontation – not my problem
• Fear of control – when my time comes…
• Fear of decision – I will try
• Fear of failure – I don’t know how
• Fear of rejection – they might say no
• Fear of responsibility – it’s not my fault
• Fear of sexuality – I won’t satisfy
• Fear of solution – it won’t work
• Fear of success – it won’t last
Stories are those we tell ourselves to justify and own our fears. They are personal interpretations of reality dealing with location (I am too far), resources (too poor), appearance (not tough enough), age (too old), genetics (not born to the right family), intelligence (not smart enough), education (didn’t go to college), and so on.
Finally, winning formulas are emotional patterns of behavior that we may use to replace open, honest interactions, because they may have worked for us in our teenage years. Examples of such behaviors are laughing, crying, anger, violence, running away, sulking, and complaining.
How Do We Move On?
Getting rid of these crippling handicaps is an essential element of a larger personal plan required to grow our activism.
Here are some helpful steps – feel free to skip any that do not apply:
• Resolve to take full responsibility for your actions going forward
• Get rid of any grudges and other negative emotions; give full absolution to your parents and others who may have hurt you; no one can hurt your feelings without your permission
•Turn destructive emotions from controllers to tools: anxiety into motivation, jealousy into friendship, anger into forgiveness
• View any reverses as learning opportunities
• Set your activism goals for the next year or two and discontinue habits that are holding you back from pursuing these goals
• Develop monthly, weekly, daily objectives toward that goal; review and reward your progress
• Each week, during a quiet moment, conduct an inventory of all the fears, stories, and winning formulas that have held back your activism in the past few days
• Consider how you may have acted more appropriately, visualize this new reaction in your mind’s eye, then apply it when the occasion arises
• Gradually, expand your comfort zone, taking on new challenges, until you are satisfied with your new level of activism
• If you need help, consider taking a personal growth crash course by institutions like the Landmark Forum
When Have We Done Enough?
At a certain point in our activism, we may ask, “where do we stop?” “when have we done enough?” Each of these questions involves two distinct conditions:
• When does the intrusion on our personal, family, and professional lives become unacceptable? and
• When does our contribution to our selected mission become largely irrelevant?
In fact, many of our and other movement leaders have forsaken their personal lives as an unwarranted luxury vis-a-vis the social tragedy they confront. Those unwilling to do that owe it to their partners, children, friends, and companion animals to adjust their activism accordingly.
The second condition arises when there is a drastic change in our physical or mental health, our financial circumstances, or our relationship with our peers. In the old days, loss of peer relationship would be associated with accusations of alcoholism or financial improprieties. Today, it’s more likely to be intimations of sexual misconduct.
The bottom line answer to the questions of “when have we done enough?” is “when we no longer can.”
(Much of the material in the first two sections of this essay comes from a personal growth course offered in most cities by the Landmark Forum.)