Jun 14, 2010
How To Stop Telling Your Sad, Sad Story
All of us have at least one area of our life where we feel trapped (either by an external circumstance or by an internal personality trait/habit), and it’s been dragging us down for years. We feel powerless to change it, and miserable at the prospect of being stuck as a victim for the rest of our lives.
We don’t think it will ever change on its own. We don’t think we can change it, either. And so we’re stuck settling with it.
The thing is, this very thought is the highest and grandest form of bullshit, and I’m calling you (and myself!) out on it.
What you have to understand is that we’re not the victim of anything, ever. When we feel powerless over our situation we’re not victims – what we’re really doing is choosing to become a martyr, because that’s the easy way out.
Now, before the comment flames start, let me clear in saying that I’m not implying that the bad things in your life are your fault. What happened in the past happened, for whatever reason it happened, and I’m not going there. Someone may have done terrible things to you, or maybe it was just a circumstance of life, and not any particular person’s fault – but you were dealt whatever cards you were dealt, and no one can change the past.
But how you play those cards that you have – that’s the present, and that’s all under your control, even if you like to tell yourself a sad, sad story that it’s not. You may be telling yourself you’ve “done your best,” but in reality, you’ve just folded at the table and said the game is over.
(Keep in mind that I’m writing this post to myself, and including you in on it, lest you think I’m being high and mighty.)
You see, we’re really and truly addicted to our sad, sad stories. They let us stay safe, instead of enduring the terror of facing ourselves and the bittersweet pain of growth.
You know what’s really, really easy? Telling ourselves we have no options. You know what’s really, really hard? Taking responsibility and taking action. Because a lot of times, the action we secretly know we need to take is uncomfortable and scary and something we just would like to pretend isn’t an option … so we come up with all sorts of stories why those options aren’t valid for “someone like us.”
“I’m too old.” “I’m not old enough.” “I’m not smart enough.” “It’s too late for me.” “I don’t have _____.” “I’m not the kind of person who could _______.” And the kicker, “You just don’t understand,Dave. I ________.”
No, I understand perfectly. And here’s what I understand – no matter what it is we struggle with, no matter what sad, sad story we tell ourselves, there is someone out there who is weaker than we are, worse off than we are, more tired/afraid/screwed up than we are … who is overcoming our problem without complaint.
It amazes me how many people with “nothing” end up accomplishing and overcoming more than people with “everything.” So it’s not about resources. It’s not about courage or willpower or talent or skill. It’s about a simple decision that losing is not an option that’s going to be considered.
When you decide in your heart that you are going to refuse to lose, you change your entire mindset – your strategy, your reactions, everything – and you tackle your burdens from a whole different angle. You stop accepting the “victim” mentality and you start looking for anything and everything that will help you make one of two changes:
Change #1: Changing Your Circumstances / Your Situation
Changing your circumstances can take a hell of a lot of work, and that’s why most people never do it. The people who don’t change their circumstances focus on their ideal situation and how it’s impossibly out of reach for them (so what’s the point of even trying?). Every potential option is met with an excuse, a reason why it won’t work for them.
Again, I’m not being high and mighty here. I’m an excuse maker extraordinaire, and as I’m said I’m writing this post to myself (but I’m betting that you can relate).
Think about the resistance you feel to options when they’re presented to you. Think of the excuses you make, all the flaws in the strategies you take based on what you imagine might happen if you tried them.
If you dig deep enough you’ll realize that the real roadblock for you isn’t that you “can’t” make something work, but that you “won’t” do it. The fear, the excuses, the worry about the consequences taking action … that’s what’s really in your way.
I want you to read this Copyblogger article, On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting For Your Ideas, because it’s absolutely stunning. It’s about a baby named Jon Morrow who was diagnosed with a medical condition that would undoubtedly kill him by the age of two, and a mother who called bullshit on that diagnosis and committed to doing whatever it took to keep him alive. (Twenty five years later, she’s still on the winning side).
Was it because she was Superwoman? No, it’s because she was committed. And commitment is different than desire.
- With desire, you often say “I wish it were this way …” and because that seems too far away, you don’t take action.
- With commitment, you say “What’s one thing I can do right now to make this a little bit closer to the way I want it to be – even if it’s hard to do it?”
Jon Morrow’s mom didn’t say, “How can I have a healthy 27 year old?” – instead she said “I have a 2-year old with a serious condition – what do I do next?”
There’s power in “next.” You can handle “next.” Maybe next won’t work this time, maybe it will. You’re guaranteed to have failures and successes, but the point of it all is that it’s almost inconceivable to be truly out of options. Sure you may not like the options in front of you, they may be uncomfortable and painful and require you to demonstrate greater courage than you have in the past, but they are options.
So stop hiding behind “I can’t” and admit that the issue is really “I won’t.” Because when you stop hiding behind the excuse and call yourself on the carpet, something miraculous often happens: you suddenly develop the courage to give that option a try.
There’s something almost magical about facing your fears – the act of doing so can make you realize that you don’t really have to be afraid, that the downsides to “failure” aren’t such a big deal and that you’re braver than you think. Or maybe it’s just the embarrassment behind facing up to “I won’t” that makes you decide “I will.”
The bottom line is that you have options. Don’t hide behind imagined roadblocks and pretend they’re taking away your power. Truth is, you’re giving it away. Stop focusing on how you’d like things to be and instead focus on what single thing you can do today to move yourself forward. Do that, and you’ll get there eventually.
But circumstances aren’t everything, and sometimes you don’t even have to change them to make a huge stride forward in your life. Sometimes all it takes is …
Change #2: Changing What The Situation Means To You
You can’t change the past, but you have total control over your personal interpretation of what the past means to you. And your personal interpretation – your “story” – is 100% your responsibility. You can’t push that onto anyone else, because what goes on in your head is your own doing – you own it.
And owning your story is a very, very good thing, because that means you can do anything you want with it.
This is another situation where you have a choice: You can either give away all your power and let other people / circumstances create a sad, sad story for you or you can decide that you’re going to thrive in the midst of the crap you’re going through and use it to empower yourself instead of drain you.
Bad cards get dealt to you, I understand that. And I also understand that we picked a few of those bad cards ourselves. Crap happens, and while I truly don’t mean to devalue the very real pain of your past, I urge you to consider the present, and how you need to take ownership of your interpretation of those events.
You can let the pain of the past drag you down, or you can “refuse to lose” again and decide that you’re going to use the pain to create a positive experience in the present and future.
When I was 9, my family imploded.
Within a span of months, one of my parents was murdered, the other went to prison, and two of my siblings were sent to the other side of the globe for their safety while my older brother and I lived out of suitcases in New York City with whoever would take us for a while. I moved frequently over the next few years, making friends and losing them every time I moved to a new part of the state (sometimes with only a few hours notice).
Eventually, I had to run away to a different part of the country and hide out for months for my own safety, as the environment in the last place I lived in New York escalated from alcoholic to drug-abusing to violent.
I’m not saying this to make you feel sorry for me. Screw feeling sorry, because at my worst I had it better than the millions of people starving and dying in third-world countries. But it was still a lot of negative influence for a pre-teen kid to soak in.
I guess I could have let it get to me, but I didn’t (and it wasn’t because I was a particularly strong 9-year old). What really happened – and I remember it well – was I was sitting by myself one day asking myself why all this happened to me, and what was the meaning behind it. Where was the good in all of this – what was the point?
But there was no point. It was just circumstance, and violence, and pain, and none of it for a good reason. I felt alone, like no one could really help me, and I was too young to help myself.
And that simply wasn’t good enough for me.
I distinctly remember thinking “Screw this, if there’s not a point here I’m going to damned well make one, because that’s the only way I’m going to get through this.”
- I decided – at 9 years old – that I was going to ask myself, “What good thing am I going to create out of this situation?” and I let that question drive my life.
- I decided I would enjoy the hell out of other people’s company, because I might never see them again.
- I decided that when I saw people hurting, I would try to help them, because maybe no one else would.
- I decided that when people thought things were hopeless, I’d try and help them find something to hold on to, because that kind off help is desperately needed.
- I decided that instead of perpetuating the cycle of problems that my parents and grandparents suffered through, I’d try to break it.
I have failed at all of this – a lot – because I’m just as fragile and fallible as anyone else. But I have also succeeded at this enough to feel like this mindset is critically necessary. The commitment to creating good out a bad experience is the antidote to so much pain, and I urge you to commit to it in your own life.
You can rewrite your sad, sad story into one that’s not devoid of sadness, but is bittersweet in the way that the pain is transformed into meaning.
I don’t know why all the painful things in life happened to me, and frankly it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the meaning I’ve injected into it. I’ve used my bittersweet story to help people from all over the world over the last 25 years since I was dealt a bad hand. I’ve solved people’s problems. I’ve had the humbling privilege of preventing suicides. I’ve inspired people not to give up – which I still believed is one of the highest callings we have access to as human beings.
I always hear the example of Nelson Mandela, who took his 25 years in prison and instead of looking at it as unjust punishment, framed it as an opportunity to mentally prepare for leading his people in the future. Bad cards become better. But the problem with that example is it makes us think “Well, I’m no Mandela. I’m just me.”
I’m no Mandela. I’m not uncharacteristically special, or talented, or anything you can’t be. I’m just a gap-toothed Italian kid from Brooklyn, and all I did was refuse to let the pain of my circumstances be in vain. I couldn’t find any good in my circumstance, but I damned well decided to create some.
And I challenge you to do the same. Embrace the pain you’re feeling right now. Ask yourself how you can guarantee that your suffering isn’t in vain. Help people. Help yourself. take your sad, sad story and use it for good.
Every great story has sadness in it. You treasure the bittersweet stories you read because they connect with the pain you know is part of the reality and the good you believe just has to be there in the midst of it.
Make your own story bittersweet. If you can’t change the past, change your present. And write your own future.
I needed to write this for myself – but I hope it has helped shake things up for you as well.
I’m having to face a few places in my life where I’m letting my own sad, sad story hold me back from being the things I need to be for my family and for others. Areas where I’m clinging to my own insecurities and weaknesses instead of facing my deep fears and taking responsible action to make things better.
I know I’ll get through them eventually, because I refuse to lose. But I just felt the need to be honest with where I am. I’m no saint – I screw up just as much as anyone else. But I’ve been stewing in guilt for too long instead of getting off my ass and making myself get some of my stuff sorted out. No more.
I hope you’ve found these 2500 words helpful.
Just one more thing before you go …
I’d like to ask you to do one important thing for me – spread the word about this article. I think it’s one of the most important I’ve ever written, and I want it to really get some reach. Click that retweet button below if you would, and spread the word however you can.
And when you’re done with that, use the comments below to tell me how you’re going to rewrite your own sad, sad story into something better. Do it today – you’ll thank yourself for it.
That is all -