Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
September 2010 - Volume 10, No. 9
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The Choice to Succeed

It would seem everybody has the freedom or choice to succeed (or fail), to win (or lose) at life. For most it’s a given. But I’ve come to see some folks differently, and those are the ones I’m going to talk about here. There are those for whom success is simply not a choice, the only choices apparently available are to lose now or lose later.

This came to my attention a awhile ago when a couple came to me because the wife wanted a divorce - and she prevailed in her decision. Shortly afterward I asked the husband, “how long have you known it would turn out like this?” His answer was “I’ve always known.” Effectively he never had a choice to succeed in his marriage, but only whether he could keep her from leaving for awhile longer. His only marital strategy was to prolong the inevitable. Once I saw this, I realized it’s not an infrequent pattern (like a Gestalt therapy breakthrough.) It can be seen in relationships, in the workplace, in education, in healthcare, in life. There are those who can’t win, but perhaps can manage how they lose.

When I consider that for some persons, “success” just isn’t an option, some situations begins to make more sense. Success and failure may be our own frame of reference, but there are those who just don’t have that choice.

What’s amazing is that although the wife who is leaving has in effect already made her decision, frequently if she’d begun to see an effective change from his “loser” mentality, she’d have been open to a different outcome, “even at this late date.”

Another variation on this theme is that the husband will wait until it’s far too late to consider any effective change in behavior or awareness - again confirming that for himself “success” is only an illusion, “losing” will have its way. And, of course, he can claim he “tried.”

We recall times past when leaving a marriage just wasn’t an option for people, except by the “death us do part” clause. I’ll joke that some couples will just stick it out forever, only to discover that in “death” they still get buried next to each other for a “perpetual care” eternity. But ours is a time when the choice is available to dissolve a marriage, and for good or ill, there’s no going back on that.

I’ve gender populated this pattern with the husband as the one who “loses” and the wife as the one who must leave him, though I’m familiar with the reverse as well. There’s a similar pattern where the wife ‘sets herself up’ for failure in what appeared at the beginning to be a ‘success’ strategy. Here a young women will fall in love with a man in whom she sees “potential.” Her plan is to help him achieve that future success, and thereby her own esteem as well. But when her efforts (and his) eventually don’t produce that potential, she becomes a bitter partner. Sometimes I’ll ask her, “why didn’t you choose someone who had already proved he could succeed?” The answer that emerges is usually some form of “I wasn’t (or I’m not) good enough for someone like that.” Real success wasn’t an option for her. There’s some similarity with the woman who puts her husband through college or graduate school and then he leaves her for a more adequate partner. (Often this is not a judgment of the wife, but the narcissistic immaturity of the ‘professional’ husband.)

I’ve been using married couples here to illustrate a larger pattern. Deep inside each of us there’s a part that believes we’re not good enough. It seems to be wired into the gene pool - like Catholic original sin. And when this belief is reinforced by early childhood parenting or other life experience, it still wants to run the show.

Many of us have been fortunate to grow and develop a counter belief that we are good, or at least good enough. So when the choices confront us that could allow for personal success, we can access a strong enough sense of self to allow us to go for it. And there are those who in spite of all odds, maintain their sense of a positive future.

Remember in school, when we were graded on “the curve.” Even then I felt bad that because when I got A’s and B’s (which I was able to do) somebody else apparently had to get marks at the bottom of the curve. This happens in our schools, in homes, in churches (especially the guilt factories), in our neighborhoods, and is especially rampant in modern economics (marketing). To enjoy “having” there apparently need to be those who “don’t have.”

Now, I meet some of those “bottom of the curve” people in my troubled married couples, or in some of the other ‘mental health’ patterns that come in my office door - as well as meet every day in my larger life. And I still want to say “well if you’d only.…” as if insisting all they have to do is to choose to be better.

How do we give to others what we already have ourselves, the general freedom of choice in life to succeed or fail? (I’m assuming that most of my readers are basically success-worthy types.) Our first response is to assume that (of course) everybody has this choice to succeed or fail. But pay close attention here! How much of our ability to succeed is premised on somebody else’s failure? Remember the grade curve? We don’t like to see that, but it’s too often true.

Back to the suffering couples that come through my office door, their fate apparently sealed by conditions over which they have little control (a view that’s anathema to many modern mental health professionals). Sometimes I have to abandon the ideas of success and failure, the "rules” of life. If there’s a choice for these people, it’s not a choice between success or failure, especially when that no longer works. For me the effective choice is that they (1) deserve something better or (2) they deserve something better dammit! And that’s a wholly different approach.

It’s as if I will say to such a person, “Personally I really don’t care whether you succeed or fail. What I do care about is that you (1) learn to deal with life on your own terms, (2) you care about others, and (3) you stay fully alive until the day you die.” Success or failure options have collapsed. But Life itself prevails - for both of us!

One of the outcomes of therapy is the ability to see what we haven’t seen and frequently haven’t wanted to see. And then comes our willingness to let go and let it change our lives. Perhaps at this point there’s really no other choice.

Otherwise you may not want to walk into my office.

Pay attention!

Comments (4)

  • Well, this certainly hit the nail on the head. It is true, you can succeed or fail...but, I like the last part the best that you have to learn to deal with life on your own terms. Having been successful all my life, dealing with life on “my terms” is still a challenge that I pursue with hope....chosing me and not just focusing on caring for others....and exploring new avenues of life to keep me alive is a challenge that I am accepting with joy now. However, change is still the name of the game and some of us change easily with enthusiasm as we are drawn to a higher vision of what we ourselves can be as opposed to being changed because we have run out of options. Bill, thanks for the monthly newsletters! They provide much food for thought.

    — Gayle Landen, 9/7/2010
  • cool, bill. this is actually really helpful to me right now.

    — michelle, 9/7/2010
  • We saw this over and over again when we were helping folks lease and then buy a home. They would fall apart when it was time to get a loan. See it now as well in that tenants can’t see owning part of the park!!!!! As if they just can’t see themselves actually owning their own home – the have never owned one before, so feel they aren’t good enough to change that pattern. I think our experience mostly applies to men, where emotional/social failure is more potent for women.

    — nameless, 9/9/2010
  • Very interesting Bill! Was wondering how these people perceive the success/failure rate of those closest to them (i.e., children in a marriage)? Does someone who doesn’t succeed expect their child to follow in the same path leading to a vicious unsuccessful cycle? Or do they push them to succeed hoping they will have a better life? On the opposite side, do those who succeed push their children to succeed instilling a hard work ethic? Or do they expect them to succeed without provocation thereby causing them to be on the lazy side?

    I’m guessing it all depends on which side of nature vs nurture you come down on as to how you answer my questions.

    — John Austin, 9/21/2010

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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