Living life by design or by default

“I suppose I will be living with this pain for many, many years”, I remarked after a major setback. My coach’s response was short and to the point: “Only if you choose to.” When his words were met by a frown, he said to me: “you either live life by design or by default.” Indeed, he was right, I could choose to keep living in the setback, or to move on, to be happy again or not.

Our experience of inner pain and emotional brokenness is an indirect process. The sequence is:

(1) Incident/situation >> (2) interpretation and processing system  >> (3) response.

It is therefore not the incident, person or situation itself that causes your pain and turmoil but rather your interpretation and processing systems. Two people can be in exactly the same situation, receiving the same treatment or news – one is peaceful and content, the other frustrated, hurt, unhappy or sad. Part of processing of what’s happening to us, is sense-making and meaning-giving, as well as the language we use to think and talk about it. Remember:  we don’t see life as it is; we see life as we are. And then, as the consequence, comes our response and behaviour that flows from our interpretation and processing systems. And this becomes your life… your success and happiness or failure and sadness.

I see this happening time and again in the business world. It breaks or makes business leaders and their organisations. We connect the dots subjectively, jump to conclusions, and then easily make the wrong decisions and take wrong actions. It’s a matter of interpretation. And the impact is huge. That’s why I often encourage leaders to take regular time out to have coffee and a personal check-in with themselves. Check the lenses you use to see your world, and re-set if necessary.

But let me use two everyday examples this time.

Janet felt intensely hurt and rejected by her teenage son’s criticism and what she perceived as rebellious behaviour: “Is this what I get after all the love and care I have given you?”. But Henry was trying to grow up, becoming more independent, identified stronger with his peers than his middle-aged parents, and wanted to get away from their smothering behaviour: “Mom, just give me space and try to trust me more”. She could stay in her position or change her perception. When Janet made peace with the fact that this was typical “teenage behaviour”, her pain faded (according to her, from 80% to 20%), and her ability to show love in a new way in a new season improved. Living with a teenager was still a challenge (which is normal), but the self-pity and intense pain was gone. She can now validate herself, get emotional distance, and label the growing-up process as normal and positive. New lenses, new emotions, new behaviour, different results.

I visited Emma, our friend, the day after she lost her husband. They were married for 54 years. She was surprisingly in a very good mind-space and full of peace. When I asked her about it, she said “I am so grateful for the many good years and all the adventures we had together. Now I choose to focus more on what I gained than focusing on what I have lost last night.” Anthony had cancer, so his death was also an end to his suffering. Of course she was sad and felt loss, but she went on to live a great, fruitful and happy life for many years. She knew what it means “to let go in order to let come”.

So, let’s no longer let worthless, dysfunctional, or skewed thinking and emotions dictate our lives. You are the host of those emotions and thoughts. Emotions are guests that will either nestle in or leave, depending on your passive permission or active decision. Now, you can take intentional decisions about what to keep and what to let go, and what to invite in. Then there is the potential of so much less pain, and so much more joy!

Let’s live our lives by design and not by default…