I learned this useful phrase in the early 70’s from a wise psychotherapist named Ruth Cohen. Another favorite phrase of mine is “take charge of your life,” not the more popular “take control of your life.” Control implies perfection and connotes more power than we humans can hope to wield. But we can take charge of our lives, as they are at this moment, and make decisions in going forward. Making decisions, carrying them to completion, and accepting responsibility for the consequences, is a very empowering process, even if the content of those decisions deals with minute or trivial concerns.
Once, I worked with an unemployed man who was agoraphobic. The usual desensitization techniques were having little effect when I came to realize that this man felt totally powerless. I suggested that he “do something different,” anything, on a consistent basis. He decided to brush his teeth in a different way. He remained committed to this decision in his daily brushing behavior and, lo and behold, he began reporting that he was feeling less anxious. He started driving again. Before very long, he was running a successful entertainment establishment. He had begun acting as his own chairman from the moment he began brushing differently, consistently.
In a novel by Larry McMurtry, Duane’s Depressed, a miserable rancher identifies his greatest misery as driving his truck (the complete opposite of the man above). He makes the impractical decision to stop driving, in sparsely populated west Texas, at that. By becoming his own chairman, he began a journey, on foot, that led him through a very difficult struggle toward a revitalized life, eventually.
I, myself, was a very unhappy person until I took charge of my life, became my own chairman, beginning largely in my early thirties. First I began running, not just till I got tired of it, but for the rest of my life. Even though I run only 10 miles per week, I’ve run the equivalent of two round trips across the U.S.A. Running consistently began to make me feel better, more in charge. Then I decided to become a vegetarian, mainly for health reasons. That decision and consistent behavior gave me an even better sense of well-being. Then, in my early 40’s, I decided to take dance lessons. I tried to persuade my wife to go on this journey with me until she convinced me that she had no interest in dancing but didn’t mind my going it alone. By sticking to my behavior, I had to confront my insecurity head on. Could I feel O.K. without my wife on my arm, or, in this case, in my arms? Sticking with this decision led me through a lot of misery and also a lot of therapy in coming to grips with my fears of inadequacy, but I made it. Now, for the most part, I’m a confident and joyous dancer with many new friends and a healthier marriage.
By taking charge of our lives, we empower ourselves and free ourselves from old fears and insecurity. But the process also brings a lot of pain along the way. The man who began brushing his teeth differently started a very rewarding and empowering journey, but he also suffered through many struggles on his way out of agoraphobia and into his business endeavor. Duane, in McMurtry’s novel, suffered the loss of his marriage and many blisters as he walked toward a revitalized life. My journey toward high self esteem has cost me much time and therapeutic expense, for me alone, and in couples therapy with my wife, from time to time. I have also gone through a lot of shoe leather with my running and dancing. Has my journey been worth it? You bet it has!
Becoming your own chairman is both easy and simple, on the one hand, especially in the beginning, and profoundly difficult, on the other, working through all the ramifications of the committed behavior. But life is a difficult business anyway—you might as well be the boss!