I've been reading a set of books recently with a rather unusual model. In these books, four authors are given the same basic premise for a story, and each of them separately write a novella based on that premise.
As boring and repetitive as that may sound, it's been surprising just how different each of their stories wound up turning out. Each author took the same defined situation and created something original from it.
As I have been reading these, I keep finding myself thinking about just how much room there is to create different responses in life to the same basic situations. It's equally had me noticing just how often I default to the same old responses over and over again.
For example, when faced with a situation of disagreement, I default to withdrawing in attempt to avoid conflict. I resort to displaying my disagreement through disapproving silence, emotional withdraw, and catty comments instead of openly expressing my opinion or needs. The exact details of the potential conflict are irrelevant. This is my default response any time that basic situation appears.
We all develop default ways of responding to things early in life. These may be a combination of responses learned by emulating those around us and survival strategies born out of facing challenges we couldn't understand or adequately address at that age.
However these default responses originated, they worked well for us at a time when we had limited other options, so we keep using them over and over and over again when similar situations to the ones that created them arise.
The problem is that these default responses often prove to be less helpful as we get older and have a wider array of options, skills, and understanding to work with. (As is clearly demonstrated by my default conflict avoidance response described earlier.)
Yet we continue to default to the same old story lines without even realizing we are doing it ... even when those default responses do more damage than good.
This tendency becomes even more pronounced when we are dealing with those times in life that feel battered and broken. Our default survival strategies kick in stronger than ever and pull us unswervingly back into the same old ruts we have traveled so many times before.
As strong as this tendency is, however, it's not the only option we have.
Life's broken places are also a prime opportunity to start fresh and create something new (on so many levels). After all, if the life we have known has already crumbled around us, why not use the rubble to build something new and different instead of attempting to re-create what collapsed?
We can create new default responses to habitual situations as part of this process of re-building, but it requires intentional effort to create these new responses and to learn to use them in preference to our old defaults until the new responses become ingrained.
The first step, of course, is recognizing our default responses and storylines. This requires paying attention to how we respond to situations and noticing the patterns in those responses. As we begin to see these default responses, we can also notice how they have appeared in our history.
Once we have begun to glimpse these default responses, we can then evaluate their helpfulness in this stage of our life. Are they working for us now? Do they help us move through life in ways that are helpful to us now? Do they move us toward the people we want to be and the values we hold most dear?
If they don't, we can then begin developing new options. This step has often proven to be a challenge for me. The default responses are so deeply ingrained in me that sometimes I can't even begin to imagine an alternative.
What I've found most helpful here is to look people in my life that handle things differently than I do and observe their responses in similar situations to use that as a starting place for imagining my own new options.
To use my default response cited earlier as an example, I couldn't imagine how to respond to potential agreement in a different way even though I recognized my default pattern wasn't working well. To spark my imagination, I began noticing how people around me responded in similar situations and particularly looked for responses that I found admirable.
In my case, I had a couple co-workers at the time who I noticed had responses to potential conflict that seemed much more helpful than mine. In particular, I noticed that their reactions to these situations did not seem to reflect a storyline of threat like mine did. They were able to state their opinion clearly without seeming to withdraw from the relationship or acting as if the relationship was threatened by disagreement.
I realized that I had an old storyline that said that disagreement was threatening to relationships and could lead to rejection or abandonment. Perhaps this was true at one time when I was small and vulnerably dependent, and it makes sense that withdrawing from the conflict in that case might be a necessary choice.
As an adult, however, that is no longer the case. If someone is going to reject or abandon me for disagreeing with them, it doesn't have the same level of life-or-death threat that it did as a child. It might make me sad to lose a relationship, but chances are good that any relationship worth having would not be so threatened.
I discovered that it is possible to disagree (even quite strongly) with someone and remain in relationship with them.
Recognizing all of this allowed me to begin trying on some of the responses I saw from these co-workers I admired when I find myself in potential conflicts. I began practicing staying engaged and voicing my opinion (usually with knees shaking and hands trembling) and discovered that the world did not end.
In fact, the result was usually much better than what I had produced with my old default. That encouraged me to keep practicing these new responses.
I am still working at completely replacing my old default in this area. It still has a strong pull, but it's now just one option I have to work with, and it gets easier and easier to make other choices all the time.
If you're in a place where it feels like life has crumbled around your ears, this may be a good place to begin authoring new responses of your own.
What are your default responses to situations?
Are those default responses serving you?
If not, what other options might you develop?
Just as I've been surprised to discover how different these novellas are despite having the same basic premise, you might be surprised to discover just how many options are available to you even when facing remarkably similar situations.
Why not create a storyline that works best for who you are today?
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