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The Paradox: Self-Responsibility Sets Us Free
by Reg Harris
Several months ago, a former student—who is now, by the way, a neurobiologist studying motivation—recommended a book to me. He knew I was studying the connections between the physical activities of the brain and the phenomenal experiences we have as a result of those activities. The book was Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change by Timothy Wilson.
In the book, Wilson made several points that tied in very well with what we experience in life as the Hero’s Journey. One point, in particular, struck close to home as it reminded me of my mother and how she had lived her life. Wilson writes,
People who attribute negative events (such as failing a test) to things about themselves that are hard to change and that affect a broad spectrum of their lives experience learned helplessness, which puts them at risk for depression and poor health, gives them low expectations about the future, and makes them likely to give up easily on future tasks. People who attribute negative events to things that they can control and change, such as the time they spend studying for the next test, are less likely to be depressed, are less likely to have health problems, and are more likely to try harder when the going gets tough (2011, p. 64).
Let me explain how Wilson’s insight relates to my mother and the Hero’s Journey.
The Archetypal Victim
My mother, who passed away at 92 after being confined to bed in a local care home for seven years, was the archetypal victim. All of the negative events in her life were the result of someone or something acting against her. Her poor health was not the result of a weight problem, poor diet, lack of exercise or negative attitude: it was the result of a mosquito bite, radio waves directed at her by neighbors or some other external source. Her isolation in her job was the result of her coworkers trying to destroy her or get back at her, not her own bitterness, acerbic behavior and paranoia. The jewelry and other personal items that “disappeared” were taken by a weekly housekeeper, or by my father, my brother or me; they didn’t disappear because she’d misplaced them or forgotten where she had hid them.
The sadness is that her life did not have to come to this end. The problem with attributing the events in our lives to external forces (i.e., luck or another’s malice) is that we rob ourselves of the power to direct our own lives. If my mother had been able to accept responsibility for her problems, she would have understood that she had the power to resolve those problems. She would have lived in the reality of her life, where she had control, rather than in a dark fantasy world of her own creation, where she was the victim.
Unfortunately, somewhere, probably in her childhood, the seeds of the adult she became were sown, and she was never able to break free, never able to engage fully in the journey of her own life.
Julian Rotter’s “Locus of Control”
In 1954, American psychologist Julian Rotter developed a theory he called the “locus of control.” The locus of control relates to the degree of control that we feel we have on the events in our lives. People with a high external locus of control tend to feel that other people, luck or fate (i.e., external forces) determine the events in their lives. People with a high internal locus of control tend to feel that they are in charge of their lives, that their own behavior and actions (i.e., internal forces) determine, to a great extent, the events in their lives.
There is an interesting relationship between one’s locus of control and our personal Hero’s Journeys. Often we are called to a journey because there is a conflict between what we want or need and our perceived ability to satisfy that want or need. When the desire for something becomes so strong that it pushes through the threshold of our sense of inefficacy or fear of failure, we face a choice: to risk the uncertainty of change and growth by challenging and transforming our self-perception or to retreat deeper into the self-defeating rationalizations and delusions that protect us from the anxiety of self-responsibility and freedom to choose.
This process of personal transformation can be threatening and painful because it usually involves dropping the delusions and avoidances that have, perhaps for many years, protected us from painful truths about ourselves or our lives. To take the journey of personal transformation, to become the hero of our own journey, requires that we acknowledge the reality of who we are. As I wrote in my article on gestalt’s paradoxical theory of change,
…the masks, roles and other defenses that we created to protect our egos in the past are now preventing us from embracing our future. In fact, these defenses have begun to choke us, trapping us in an obsolete identity, often formed in childhood, and making change impossible. Simply put, before we can become what we can or want to become, we must first discard these defenses and become who we really are.
The Hero’s Journey and the Unfolding of Self
In the context of developing a sense of efficacy in our lives, the journey can be seen as a three-stage process. First, the road of trials (disintegration) breaks down the delusions and rationalizations that support an external locus of control. This disintegration creates a void or space (the abyss) where new meaning and understandings can emerge. Finally, as new, more life-affirming meanings are revealed (revelation), the new self, with greater sense of self-efficacy and control, can emerge (transformation and reintegration).
Another way to look at this process is as reframing meaning. When we have a high external locus of control, the meaning we ascribe to a negative experience will tend to place us in the victim’s role rather than in the hero’s role: why do these things always happen to me? When we have a high internal locus of control, we see a negative experience not as a reflection of some innate inadequacy but as a learning experience that will help us make more effective decisions or take more positive action in the future. In other words, the meaning we give an experience―even a negative experience―will affirm our sense power, strengthen our resolve and enrich our lives.
In this sense, the hero’s journey is a process of building more effective, life-affirming meaning in our lives. This new meaning will enable and motivate us to take action to affect our life experience rather than to wait passively for experiences to happen to us. Because facing the challenge to reframe our meaning involves life-altering changes and a threat to our sense of being, it can be considered an act of heroism. In Will I be the Hero of My Own Life?, Chetanananda writes,
Heroes are people who, in a real way, have confronted and changed their identities through the process of some kind of intense difficulty that they had to undergo. This intense difficulty is sometimes consciously chosen and accepted; at other times, it is just thrust upon a person. …However impossible the endeavor, they take on the challenge and digest whatever hardships they are called upon to endure. In the process, they find within themselves a sense of strength that allows them to shed who and what they were, thereby becoming a completely different kind of person—a hero (p. 4).
By developing a more responsible and action-oriented meaning in life, we can develop the skills we need to face challenges and frame them in a way that is life-affirming. In Redirect (2011), Wilson writes,
What really sets optimists apart is that they have better coping strategies in the face of adversity—they confront problems rather than avoid them, plan better for the future, focus on what they can control and change, and persist when they encounter obstacles instead of giving up (p. 66).
The point is that when we attribute our success or our failure to forces outside of our control, we give up our power to affect and determine (to the extent we can) our own lives. Often, in our own hero’s journeys, our call to adventure arises from an opportunity to build new meaning. The journey opens the doorway to transformation, to changing the way we see life. It allows us to face our fears and self-defeating beliefs, and to take control—to become the heroes in our own stories, the architects of our own futures.
Chetanananda, S. 1995. Will I be the hero of my own life? Portland, OR: Rudra Press.
Harris, R. 2011. “The inner journey: Gestalt’s paradoxical theory of change.”
Wilson, T. 2011. Redirect: The surprising new science of psycho-logical change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Copyright © 2012 by Reg Harris. Updated 2015. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article or any part thereof in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is strictly prohibited. Posting this article or any part thereof to the Internet in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and strictly prohibited. For permission to use, please contact Reg Harris.