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 could become impossible to live without. 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 and into the new life of a 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 available to us, it is our natural tendency 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 who were 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 that I was operating from the stress of reactivity rather than the stress of possibility.
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 a small business owner because to do so requires clarity of purpose, vision and direction. With the gift of space and time, and with the learning that comes from even incremental progress, that definition eventually emerged and I began to operate not from the insecurity of anxiousness (reactively) but from the confidence of determination (proactively).
I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate my default reaction to stress but I do think it’s possible 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 to take refuge there, it is imperative that we acknowledge, finally, that the prison cell we have created is not locked, and it never was.
A post script: What do you notice about your style 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.