You Are the Most Powerful Person in Your Life
When I was at the Compass School, we had weekly meetings with about ten kids and one advisor. During these group sessions, we talked about life and issues that came up in our volunteer work and about our journal writing and contract learning activities. It was a new experience for me to talk about things in a group like that, and, being rather shy and private in some ways, I didn't always like it much.
I remember I came to school one day in a really bad mood. I had been fighting with my parents about their rules, and how I felt that they were trying to control my life, and how I didn't think they understood how important it was for me to be with my friends. I'm sure now that when I walked into Group, everyone could see from my face and body language that I was upset and angry. I didn't care. I wanted them to know it; I wanted everyone to know it.
I wound up talking with irritation about one of the requirements we had to meet, saying how stupid I thought it was and how hard it was to make it work out. After the meeting, my advisor, John, asked to talk to me in his office. "Oh, geez, now what?!" I thought. I already felt as if everyone was against me; I didn't need this.
Not being able to think of a way out of it, I stomped into his office and threw myself down in the chair.
He looked at me for a minute, preparing, I assumed, to put me in my place. But instead of yelling, he asked me what was going on that was making me so upset. I started telling him about that morning's fight with my parents and how awful everything was. As I talked, I felt myself calming down a little — at least someone was willing to listen to me — but I still didn't know why he called me into his office. When I ran out of words, I slouched back in the chair and stared at the ugly gray carpet, expecting a repeat of the fight with my parents: telling me why I was wrong, why my parents were right, and that my feelings were screwed up, and probably that I had talked too much in Group. But John surprised me. Instead of lecturing, he told me something I've remembered my whole life.
"You know, Kay, I don't think you realize how powerful you are."
I lifted my eyes from the floor to stare at him. I felt like the least powerful person in the world. Everyone was controlling me, I couldn't do what I wanted to after school or on weekends, everything I tried to do or wanted didn't work out, I was unhappy and I blamed it on my family and my school and politicians and everyone else. I thought he was nuts.
"When you came into Group this morning, the rest of us were already there. You came in angry and negative, and that affected everyone. They were watching you, responding to you. On other days, when you come in with a positive attitude, the group responds to that, too. You have a strong, intense spirit and the ability to speak your thoughts and feelings. I want you to realize that you can choose whether that influence is a good one or a bad one."
I was speechless. I had never seen myself as having power in the group, having influence. I always felt as if the group existed and I just had to try to find a way to fit in with what was already going on. I also assumed that was only going to work once in a while. I was used to feeling separate, apart, different, not good enough. It had never occurred to me that I contributed to what the group was, that my being there was part of creating it, and that I could decide for myself what kind of contribution I was going to make.
I felt something inside me change at that moment. It was a strange feeling, as if a part of me expanded and grew deeper, like a plant sprouted and put out some roots.
Seeing Myself in a New Way
That day I saw myself for the first time from the outside. Suddenly, I could imagine how I must have looked, flouncing into the meeting room, displaying my anger and waving it around the room like a flag. I was always getting so mad at everyone else for not being responsible for the ways their behavior affected me; I scrutinized everyone else's looks and actions, attitudes and words, and criticized them for being hypocrites, but I had never taken that same kind of hard look at myself and my own actions and attitudes. Wow.
I've never forgotten that feeling, that realization. And over the years I've come to think of that moment as the time when I first really started growing up for real, when I first started to become myself.
Our whole lives are a long journey of becoming ourselves, becoming responsible for our own lives, becoming whole within ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. When we are babies, we are utterly dependent on grown-ups to care for us. As little children, we progress to walking, talking, feeding ourselves. As we go to school, we see a bit more of the world, learning about how people live in our country and in other countries, about ideas and theories, about relationships, about our bodies and our sexuality, about work. When it's time to leave school and actually start to "travel" on our own, we may have a graduation ceremony or move out of our parents' home. And there's a part of us that thinks, "There, I'm done with all that, now I can start living!"
But what most of us find out is that we're only just beginning, in our late teens and early twenties, the journey to becoming ourselves. We crave independence — having our own car or going places on our own, finding a job, moving to another town or city — and are convinced that once we are free to do these things, life will be good. But we bump up against so many things we can't control: the boss who doesn't hire us, the landlord who won't rent to us, the other people in our lives who don't behave the way we want them to. And we face decisions to be made that sometimes bring unexpected and undesirable consequences, like driving home from a bar after drinking and winding up in a crash. And we often resist being solely responsible, blaming others for our situations — oh, those irritating parents, bosses, landlords, other drivers, boyfriends and girlfriends.
Suddenly, the idea of being responsible becomes a lot less appealing than it first seemed to be, when we were still living by the rules of parents and school. What I found, however, once I accepted that I couldn't control other people's emotions and actions and that I had to take the good with the bad in life, is that responsibility is more powerful than I imagined.
A few years ago, I learned a trick about understanding power and responsibility that has helped me a lot. I was taking an anger-management class, and the trainer had us draw two circles, one kind of large, and the other smaller and inside the first. First, he asked us to label the inside circle with our name. He said, "That circle is you; write in your emotions right now, your attitudes about life, your recent choices." Next, he had us write in the space around our little circle the things that bothered us about the world and other people, the frustrations of our life. Here's what mine looked like:
Then he said, "Now, look at those two circles; the little one is all the stuff you can control." And I realized that what is in my control is also what is my responsibility to deal with. When you feel as if you are powerless, maybe you'd find it helpful to try this approach. Here are two circles for you to use:
The thing is, as I keep on becoming my adult self, I have wanted to be more and more in charge of my own life. To do that, though, I have had to stop trying to control everything that happens to me. I can't make people like me or treat me right; I can't make everything work out the way I want it to. Sometimes that has left me feeling betrayed and angry, or weak and powerless. But the flip side of the coin is that when I let go of the other stuff, I see that I am the only one who has the power to control — to take responsibility for — myself and my attitudes, my choices and my actions. Other people can't decide for me what I'm going to think, or do, or believe. Even though the responsibility can be scary, it's also exciting to know I have ultimate power in that small circle. The way I say it to myself sometimes is, "I get to choose, and I have to choose." And I say that second part, the "I have to choose," because if I don't, I'm giving away the only power that's truly mine.
Growing My Own Command Center
I wasn't the only kid at the Compass School who fought with her or his parents. In fact, many people start having conflicts with their parents and teachers and other adults around the time they become teenagers. One of the coolest things I've learned lately is one of the reasons why that is so, and I learned it from reading articles and books about brain research.
People used to think that a person's brain was pretty much done "growing" by age 5 or 6; after that point, it was just a matter of "filling it up" with stuff. You know that idea; it's the one that seems true in some teachers' classrooms, where you're just supposed to memorize a bunch of dates and names and facts that don't seem to connect with anything. There was an idea that all people were supposed to develop in the same way and go through certain stages of development toward maturity. And adults figured that teenagers were just being stubborn, rebellious, or scatterbrained when they didn't behave the way they were supposed to or control their feelings or remember the eight chores they were supposed to do before dinner.
But recent research on how brains develop has brought new clarity to this time of life. We now know that while lots of important brain growth does happen in early childhood, there are several other big brain-growth "spurts" later — and guess when they happen? During the teen years.
There is a part of the adult brain, called the prefrontal cortex, that doesn't develop until adolescence and isn't done maturing until you're about 20 or 21. It's what researchers sometimes call the executive part, because it's what allows you to make more careful decisions, to keep all your tasks and responsibilities in mind, to sort through duty and conscience and control. Turns out it is true that adults and teens are different — not quite different species, but ones with different brains! That explains a lot.
* * *
turns out that
adults and teens
It's part of why conflict with parents or whoever else is raising you is common when you're 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. For so many years, those people have basically acted as that decision-making part of your brain, the part you haven't yet fully developed. They have acted as your commander, your reminder, your leader, your conscience, your control panel. And now you're beginning to create that in yourself, and you don't always want it from the outside anymore.
Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains need to be cared for and used in order to get stronger. I believe that each time I experienced my own power, each time I felt inside of me that new sense of something growing or taking root, I was literally making or strengthening a new brain path. And when you spend time figuring things out, trying to think about your ideas and emotions and process them and choose how to act, you are exercising this developing part of your brain. A psychologist named David Walsh, who has written a book about brain development, calls the process "blossoming and pruning." Your brain develops so many paths during this amazing time that it makes more than it can actually keep. The paths that are used most frequently tend to stick with you; the rest are "cut away" to make room for others.
This explains, in part, why it's best to not smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs during your teen years. The chemicals in them change how your brain physically works and make it harder for you to do the things you need to in order to help it grow. It's also easier to become addicted during your teens, because your brain develops paths that learn to depend on the drugs. Wish I'd known this before I started smoking at age 15.
Creating the Meaning of My Life
So what's the point of all this talk about brains, power, and responsibility? The point is that these ideas have been very important in helping me create my life and the meaning of my life. Maybe you'll find some of this information helpful, too.
I wondered a lot when I was a teenager about what I was supposed to do with my life and what the meaning of it all was (sometimes I still do). The difference between then and now is that I used to think that when I didn't know what I was supposed to do with my life, somehow I would just "find" the answer — as if the meaning of life was out there somewhere waiting to be picked up like a pebble on the sidewalk, put in my pocket, and then I'd have it.
When I truly started to believe in my own power, in my own ability to take control of my life and of myself, I started thinking in a different way. Now I know that I can create my own meaning, my own purpose. And the way I do it is by starting with a truth — sometimes the truth is discovered in my own thoughts, or I find it by reading and looking around me and talking to other people — and then making it real by using it in my daily life. I've come across three great sayings about putting truths into action to create the meanings of my life. One is really positive, one more negative, and one more neutral. For me, a different one works in different situations, depending on what's going on with me.
We all walk in darkness, and each of us must turn on our own light. I can't remember where I heard or read this saying; I just have it written down in an old journal. The idea of needing to turn on my own light reminds me that I'm not alone in feeling in the dark sometimes. We all get confused, we all feel as if we are "in the dark" some days. And we all have the experience as we grow up of having to leave behind childhood, when we were taken care of by others, and learn to take care of ourselves.
When I was a teenager, a popular rock song by a guy named Alice Cooper was a kind of anthem for many of us who grew up in the seventies. The refrain was "I'm 18! I get confused every day!" I've been remembering that song lately, finding the screaming chorus running through my mind as I'm trying to solve a problem or process a strange conversation with someone. Nowadays, I'm better at dealing with the times of confusion — when I feel as if I'm walking in darkness — because I've seen them come so many times. Even so, I still can find myself mixed up and discouraged and thinking, "No one told me life would be this hard!"
Fortunately, we each have the power to light our own way, and no one else can turn the light on for us: not a boyfriend or girlfriend, not a parent or teacher, not a boss or a friend or anyone else (although they can sometimes help by "pointing us to the switch"). That means to me that being passive about life is not right; it's a "cop-out," bailing out on my own power and my own responsibility to choose. I can put off decisions, and I can let other people make decisions for me, but eventually, it all comes back to me. And when I feel as though I'm in a dim cave of confusion and the Alice Cooper chorus is starting to get stuck in my head again, it's up to me to find out how to turn on the light.
If you want to keep getting what you're getting, keep doing what you're doing. I found this saying on a refrigerator magnet at an office where I worked for a short while during my twenties. There are times when I find myself really frustrated — mentally beating my head against the wall about dealing with a friend I can't seem to agree with or a life that isn't interesting enough or an unhappiness that just won't go away. That's when it's useful to think: IF YOU WANT TO KEEP GETTING WHAT YOU'RE GETTING, KEEP DOING WHAT YOU'RE DOING. My brother, Todd, told me the same thing happens to him sometimes, and he uses a different quote, one from Albert Einstein: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."
Here's how it works for me: When I hit that wall of frustration, that sense that I'm not getting what I want, especially from another person, I remember this saying, especially the part about "keep doing what you're doing."
That usually gets me started thinking about just what it is I have been doing. It reminds me that when I feel as if nothing is working, I should take a look to see whether I've really tried everything. It turns my view from outside to inside, from the big circle to the little circle, and quietly suggests that maybe there is something else, something more or different I could do. And it helps me pause long enough to consider whether what I've been wanting to get is reasonable.