“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Dr. Viktor Frankl
I love this quote by Dr. Frankl. It speaks to me of the great power we all inherit to determine how we deal with the world. When we feel helpless in the face of someone’s behavior, we can remember Dr. Frankl’s words and take solace. We are not victims to our reactions. We are not powerless in determining the outcome of an exchange. We can in fact choose, specifically, and deliberately how we will engage with someone – regardless of their behavior.
I was told a story by a young person of how their parent, seemingly mentally ill, was sometimes so persistent in demanding a response that it bordered on abuse. This young person, we can call him Sam, reports that he gets so angry at the persistence (bullying?) of his parent that the “conversation” often ends up in screaming, yelling and more often than not, violent outbursts. Sam doesn’t want to hurt his parent’s feelings, he wants to be a helpful son, wants to have a healthy sense of family, but feels thwarted in that because nothing he does changes his parent’s behavior.
A husband and wife seem to argue all the time. At the root of most disagreements is a threatened sense of connectedness. When the connection between them is disrupted the individuals become distressed. When individuals become distressed they act out in ways that rarely speak DIRECTLY to the rupture in the connection. Rather, hurtful words come out and the more attacked a partner feels the more hurtful the words tend to become. People find themselves spiralling into a terrible dance where one reaction begets another reaction begets another and on it goes.
I find these two stories very linked. Both speak to a certain re-activeness. Both speak to a loss of power in deciding and determining how one might respond. We rarely put ourselves in our partner’s, parent’s, friend’s, sibling’s, child’s shoes when we are in the throws of a conversation/argument. We automatically become defensive and in that moment give up our power to choose. Alternatively, some of us make the mistake of making ourselves responsible for our loved one’s feelings. If I stand up for myself I will hurt them; if I’m assertive, they will become angry, sad, depressed; if I “win” they will lose; I can’t be truthful, it will be too painful. Without even realizing it we give up our power.
So what might it take to hold on to that moment Dr. Frankl talks about? What might it take to make that moment of choosing how to respond available to us? And even if in the first moments of an “engagement” we lose our footing and become defensive – is it impossible to pull back from that place? Is it impossible to be compassionate with our selves and say “Ok, Hold on.. I can do this? How can I choose to respond in a way that is assertive, respectful and preserves my dignity?”
We all have the strength to do this – step back, consider what we might say, consider what our loved one is feeling (really), decide whether to engage or not, decide to be authentic, decide how to engage. By demonstrating that strength, by exercising that power, we show others how to avail themselves of that same strength.
No one is saying it’s easy.