The things that free you also bind you.
It is a sad cliché that the prisoner, finally freed after years of confinement, has a difficult time adjusting to his new reality. In the face of so many possibilities – so many necessary daily choices and responsibilities – a highly routinized lifestyle dictated by someone else’s agenda is often much more appealing. Certainly there are days or even just situations where you would much rather have someone else decide. The responsibility of freedom can be exhausting.
I think back on my transition out of corporate life a couple of years ago and into the new life of an entrepreneur/small business owner and I am reminded of Karen Horney’s (1945) psychological construct that each of us tends to cope with our basic anxiety along one of three dimensions: moving towards people (compliance), moving against them (aggression) or moving away from them (withdrawal). While each approach is always available to us our tendency, based on experience, is to default to one of these primary coping mechanisms.
My default position for anxiety management has long been withdrawal. Frustrated by the demands of compliance and afraid of the consequences of conflict I would simply disappear, my aggression dissipated passively on those closest to me and least deserving of it! Back to the career change, I recall so many people expressing to me how much sense it made that I was finally going to “do my own thing.” I buoyed myself, as I entered a new unknown, with their casual confidence and borrowed as much of it as I could. Looking back on the bumpiness of that first year – a particular and predictable set of anxious feelings – I recognize that the root of the challenge in my transition to a new life of “freedom” was in my struggle between moving away and moving towards.
As “right” as the change was on its face, it was also another excellent example of my tendency to “move away.” Initially, I made the move in order to get away from a particular set of circumstances rather than to manifest those of my own intention. It was no surprise then that I did not think of myself as an entrepreneur/small business owner because to do so requires clarity of purpose, vision and direction. With the gift of space and time, and with the give and take of any forward progress, that definition has eventually emerged and provided the clarity necessary to more thoughtfully “move towards.”
I don’t think it’s possible to fully eradicate my old default position or to exist in a realm above a default mode and fluidly move between the three orientations as circumstances demand. I do think it’s possible, however, to become deeply educated about my tendency and to stay open to new ways of orienting to the world. As comforting as it may sometimes be the prison cell is not the only option.
What do you notice about your own tendencies under stress? Do you disappear? Do you agitate and express frustration? Do you fall into line to diminish the feelings of uncertainty? The opportunity to become your own authority – to more effectively contend with life’s anxieties – exists in your willingness to, (1) identify the pattern and (2) free yourself to choose a new approach in the moment.
DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.