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Take Charge of Your Life

The problem is that we started out as children.

Overcoming that fact can take a lifetime.

Programmed for Powerlessness

Children have no power.

If you had a normal childhood, you didn’t get to choose how or where you spent your time.

You didn’t decide when to go to bed or even what to wear when you got there.

You were told to brush your teeth, eat your vegetables (or face the intolerable prospect of no dessert), and go to school.

At school, you studied what you were told to study, whether it was interesting or not.

If your school had physical education classes, you were forced into physical activity.

I’m not saying these are bad things, just that they may have had an impact on your ability to take charge of your life today.

Freedom at Last!

We all grew up with restrictions on our personal freedom. We spent the first part of our lives with little or no freedom at all.

As we got older, we were given more privileges.

We got a license to drive.

We could stay out later at night.

We could smoke or drink or vote if we felt like it.

Once we turned 21, we were considered adults with all the rights and freedoms of our parents.

We could now take charge of our lives.

In theory.

But what about all those years of conditioning? Those years in which we felt – and were – powerless?

Learned Helplessness

I’ve heard that if you put a shackle around a baby elephant’s ankle and shackle the elephant to a stake, it learns in a short time that it can never break free.

By the time the elephant is fully grown, the shackle and stake would be too weak to hold it. But the elephant doesn’t know that. So it stays close to the stake. As long as the shackle is on, it thinks it’s trapped.

I’ve heard of similar conditioning with aquarium sharks. They’re placed in the same tank as smaller fish they’d love to eat, but there’s a glass partition between them.

After bumping into the partition every time it tries to eat the other fish, there’s a point at which the shark will no longer bother to try. At that point, the partition can be removed.

The shark will never venture beyond where it used to be, leaving a safe zone for the other fish.

There’s a famous (and cruel) experiment in which dogs in an electrified cage stopped trying to avoid the shocks after learning that escape was impossible.

Even when they were given an opportunity to save themselves from being shocked, the dogs didn’t take it. The concept of learned helplessness emerged from this experiment.

Empower Yourself

I often find myself feeling inspired by reading something or hearing someone else’s story. But actually doing something with that inspiration is another matter.

Here’s how I see it:

Reading self-help is not the same as helping yourself.

Feeling empowered is not the same as exercising power.

Being inspired to take charge of your life is not the same as taking charge of it.

There comes a time to put down the self-help books, turn off the computer and spend some time doing the work of self-help, whatever that may be.

Now that we have our freedom, taking charge of our lives means taking responsibility. Freedom IS responsibility. No one can take charge of our lives anymore but us.

Let’s start over today. I vote we get rid of the shackles, and shatter the glass partitions in our lives.


Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Take Charge of Your Life"

  • A. Isabel Spradlin
    September 27, 2012 - 11:27 am Reply

    I feel like I wrestle with this every day! It feels so good to be inspired but then when the good feeling fades and I haven’t actually DONE anything about it . . . well, that’s when the chocolate ice cream comes out. Hmmm, maybe it’s a win-win after all! Hah! 🙂

    • Tina Gilbertson
      September 27, 2012 - 2:08 pm Reply

      There’s nothing wrong with taking charge of a little chocolate ice cream, I always say. Thanks for your comment, Isabel.

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