Updated: Nov 13, 2020
When was the last time you heard people complaining about some aspect of their lives that wasn’t going as planned, or pleasing to them? Probably not too long ago, you or someone close to you encountered a dilemma that you weren’t prepared to handle. It threw you for a loop. You felt frustrated, angry, scared, or sad. How did you handle it? Chances are, if you are reading this, you didn’t give up entirely, because you’re still alive. Yet maybe you’re not entirely pleased with how the situation got resolved, or partially resolved. Maybe you’re still in the thick of it. Whatever the case may be, you have been given the opportunity to learn about becoming proactive.
What does it mean to be Proactive?
Google’s online dictionary defines proactive as: (of a person, policy, or action) creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened. (Thanks Google!) When we create a situation we are empowering ourselves by taking action that will help us get what we want or need. When we control a situation, we must be careful to do it in a way that honors both ourselves and the needs of other people. For example, if we want someone to help us, we can control in a way of influencing them to help us by giving them reasons to help us. That would be a healthy use of our power. Other people might try to manipulate, deceive or bully other people into helping them. That is obviously unhealthy.
When we’re confronted by difficulties, the most common thing to do is react. Sometimes we’re taken by surprise, and other times we saw the bad event coming but didn’t know how to prevent or circumvent it. At the most extreme, we might go through life having people react negatively to us because of our behavior and wonder why no one likes us. It can be very tempting to feel like a victim and think the world is out to get us. This takes us off the hook for responsibility and allows us to escape the sometimes painful process of looking inward to discover what we do to contribute to the situations. This tendency can happen in any part of our lives, not just relationships. We can keep running up credit card debt, and complain that we’ll always be in the proverbial donut hole. We might have repeated brushes with the law and not examine what we’re doing to get into trouble. Our health might suffer because we act as though someone is forcing us to eat and drink substances that make us ill. The common denominator is an unwillingness to take full responsibility of our lives.
We are all 100% responsible for our lives – that’s a pretty strong statement! I have heard people say this in the self-help fields and for some, it’s a trendy buzz phrase that just sounds good. But the truth of the matter is that living life this way is the only true path to freedom and joy. If we don’t take the responsibility for our lives, we give our power away to circumstances outside of ourselves, and “people, places and things,” as they say in 12 step programs. So instead of drinking excessive alcohol because your wife left, or your pet died, or your boss yelled at you, you take responsibility for the way you responded. Yes, it’s lousy to have all those things happen. Yes, it feels awful. Yes, it hurts and it may hurt for some time to come. However, the way you respond to it is within your control. When we respond to the things we cannot control with patience, thoughtfulness, and an awareness of all the players in the situation and what everyone’s needs are, we can say that we are taking responsibility. When we blame others, feel like the world is against us, and allow people to take advantage of us because we will not protect ourselves, we are not taking full responsibility, and our suffering is usually prolonged as a result.
Self vs. Other
Living your life on purpose and with clarity can also help you avoid some tragedies, because like a chess player, you see a few moves ahead to what other people might do or say. Being proactive involves looking at situations in your life and seeing what possible roadblocks may arise and developing a plan to overcome those challenges. Looking ahead and planning are the opposite of worrying and fretting, or reacting emotionally and giving up. If we are centered within ourselves, we don’t react emotionally to frustrations and setbacks. We use our minds to step back, look at the situation more objectively, and think about what we want and how to get it. In the process we also allow ourselves to imagine what the other players in the situation want and need. This is crucial. There are many people who just go around thinking about what they want and need, and don’t seem to think or care about what others need. As a result, unless they have unlimited power, they run into obstacles, because other people object or put up roadblocks. If you fall into this trap, it is a good idea to adjust the way you interact with others in your relationships and in your career, so that you account for and accommodate others’ needs as well as your own.
The opposite of that tendency is to only consider what others want and not think about what we want. This also creates problems because a person is expecting others to intuit or already know what they want. It is not realistic to expect others to know what you want and need in a situation. We live in a world with many different cultures and ways of doing business, so relying on politeness or social niceties is not going to guarantee that others know what you need. Even in a homogeneous culture, reliance on others to read your mind in order to know what you want is unrealistic because we are all different. It is disempowering and ineffective to expect others to know what you want and to give us what we want, especially if it conflicts with what others want. People who fall into this trap are sometimes referred to as “codependent” and this pattern of behavior can create a lot of pain and trouble, just as being self-centered can.
If you struggle with becoming empowered, please consider getting some help for that. Psychotherapy can help remove old patterns of behavior and thinking that interfere with being proactive.