What do we invite into our lives only to complain about later? After a long car ride followed by a short ferry ride, I arrived for a retreat on Bois Blanc Island with other brave adults to explore this question with two seasoned psychotherapists.
Taking Responsibility – Therapist Heal Thyself…
It’s far easier to think and wrestle with how to survive and grow from the randomness of human suffering or from the suffering from those we love because of their broken humanity than it is to spend a weekend on an island exploring the suffering we create for ourselves. This could be deemed the first insight of the weekend—why did I invite the confinement of a cabin to hang out with strangers exploring this bold theme, when I could have been traversing the bold colors of a Michigan autumn on expansive nature trails? Why do it?
Although initially feeling confined, I left the retreat liberated. I left empowered to change the things I didn’t know I had the power to change—my own contributions to human suffering. I left inspired to change lifelong patterns that had kept me moving mindlessly through aspects of my life.
We learn about this form of self-induced suffering in recovery, in our 12-step groups. It’s painful and can cause us to feel shame when we realize that our addicted behaviors, with increasing impairment in self-control, rendered us not only powerless over our drug of choice—booze, drugs, gambling, sex—but also over mounting consequences in our relationships with others. Whether the consequences impact financial, emotional, physical, or spiritual health. The author, John Bradshaw states “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” Not only the secrets we keep from others, but as I learned on Bois Blanc Island, the secrets we keep from ourselves. The insights I protect myself from because they’re too difficult to face. But that awareness and acceptance casts light onto a pathway of recovery and self-improvement.
Knowing What I Hate…
I went to this retreat knowing that I hated it when I sensed that others were making decisions for me, telling me what to do and controlling my self-agency. Thinking,“I had enough of this in my childhood, and I’m tired of people getting in my business, trying to control my life, thinking they know what’s best for me without consulting me, or just expecting I’ll submit out of fear and unwavering deference to their authority.”
And I left realizing that often I’m the one who invites people to make decisions for me, because sometimes I’m a ponderer and a decision needs to be made right then. I invite people to control me because sometimes I’m afraid of autonomy and seek the comfort of deferring to others. And, because sometimes I’m indecisive, I unwittingly invite people who are aggressive and controlling to take charge.
I grew up in an environment where autonomy and self-agency weren’t encouraged. Instead, adherence to the authority of others and their dogma was prized, causing me to be more passive and indecisive. In order to survive and adapt, I chose a path of self-effacement and deference leading to developing a personality pattern good at inviting the very things I recoiled from, complained of, and lamented—people controlling and making decisions for me. It wasn’t a zero-sum game where I never made decisions or was never autonomous but, like most things, it was on a spectrum.
Although I was trending toward more autonomous differentiation and making tough decisions, I looked back on what I thought was victimization and realized I invited those people to stay in my life. I didn’t invite them to listen to me, reckon with me. Instead, I succumbed to my fears and fell silent. I invited organizations to control me because I was too afraid to leave. Either I didn’t know where to go next (in the next stage of my development) or I didn’t think I had the strength and competency to take the next step (finding different relationships, college, faith community, place of work, etc.,) in my life journey.
And I left Bois Blanc Island with a question that changed my life and continues to provide me great self-insights when I have the courage to ask it:
How am I inviting this suffering, this problem, this issue into my life?
There are times, after reflection and intentional discussions with trusted people who help me do my personal inventory, I discover that I’m not sending invitations. I’m dealing with the stuff of life. You know the phrase, “shit happens”. And who am I to think I’m protected from losses, stressful socio-political forces, or the pain and disappointment of doing intimacy with an open heart? It isn’t always fun, but it remains empowering and liberating to know I can change certain things in me and my life to reduce or eliminate the stress and suffering I’ve created.The self-awareness lessens the feeling of victimization and increases self-determination.
Choosing a Path of Growth
All of us—if we choose to be on a path of growth—can do this brave and liberating work of asking “What do I invite into my life only to complain about later?”
- Financial stress?
- Medical problems?
- Unhealthy people into my life?
- Depression by living a depressing life?
- Problems with weight?
- Dead end and unsatisfying jobs?
- And countless others
This is a difficult question to ask because it often invites feelings of shame and guilt for not making the changes in our lives we either know we need to make or that we’ve kept secret from ourselves by remaining in denial. Although there may be more reasons (biology, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc.,) than what you’re doing personally, if you don’t ask the question, you aren’t exercising the Serenity Prayer of changing the things I can. It’s also possible to effectuate some change when working on ourselves while at the same time accepting the things I can’t change outside our control. There is healing, empowerment, and personal development in disclosing our secrets to those who are supportive of us.
Shame grows in the dark but is healed in the light of personal disclosure…
We can also heal and develop ourselves by being open to feedback from others. Our blind spots can be discovered and worked on. If you’re not getting much feedback about your human flaws and blind spots, you may want to ask if perhaps you don’t invite it due to defensiveness or being easily offended or hurt. Moreover, in doing this work of personal recovery and development, it’s also good to ask ourselves how we don’t invite the things we want and desire more in life such as love, peace, joy, success, and intimacy with others.
I’m Actually a Good Decision Maker…
What I’ve learned in sending less invitations for others to make decisions for me, is that I’m actually a good decision-maker. Acting autonomously, I founded a center for men that specializes in unique and innovative counseling programs and I’ve co-authored two books. Now the media and organizations invite me to speak and provide direction and vision for the state of men and masculinity. I’m not saying this to brag but to make my point that, when we gain greater insight into what is holding us back in our personal development, we have the power within to make great strides in forwarding visions for ourselves and making a positive impact on a broken world.
It’s been almost two decades since I holed up in that island cabin and discovered this little personal growth gem. I keep it in my pocket and pull it out often. Although tiny, it offers me big insights and inspires me to continue learning and growing. I hope it can do the same for you.