When You’re Helpless and Things Go Wrong

Life doesn’t always go the way we want it. In fact, sometimes it can feel like it rarely does.

Unless you’re a spectacular hypnotist or sorcerer, you can’t control the decisions other people make. You can predict and persuade, but you can’t control others. Sometimes this creates circumstances that are out of our control, and we experience failure.

  • Customers choose your competitor
  • A relationship falls apart
  • Another candidate gets the job or promotion
  • Your child rebels
  • People don’t show up for your event

In situations like this, we can tell ourselves negative stories. Dr. Henry Cloud calls this the death spiral of a leader. In his book Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Cloud argues that we learn helplessness through the “three P’s.”

We believe our problem is…

  • Personal
    “What ever made me think I could be a leader?” The reason we are stuck is that I am not up to the task. What ever made me think I was good enough to pull this off?”
  • Pervasive
    “It seems like everything I am working on is failing. Nothing is going the way I need it to go.”
  • Permanent
    “It is not going to change.”

Cloud encourages leaders to counter the “three P’s” by observing, logging and refuting.

The way to turn around the three P’s habit is to become aware of your own thinking patterns, first through self-observation, and then by writing these thoughts down in a log, journal, or notebook. Next, review each of the thoughts in the log and identify specific counterarguments and actual facts to refute them, one by one.

While explaining this approach during the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit, Dr. Cloud emphasized that life is a movie, not a scene.

“Every great movie has crisis scenes in it. It’s the brains that see it (the crisis) as a scene and start doing the behaviors that end a great movie who win.”

This is where we DO have control. We don’t control the individual scenes, but we do create the narrative those scenes fit into.

We control the editing of our life.

We don’t run the cameras or control the actors, but we take the footage and give it meaning. What happens to us in life is momentary, but the stories we tell ourselves stay with us. Losing a sale, losing a job, losing an entire business (all of which have happened to me personally) do not define your life. They are each a scene.

How you insert them into the movie of your life is up to you.

As Garr Reynolds says on his blog Presentation Zen,

Editors are the unsung heros of film, but if we take a closer look even those of us outside of film can learn valuable lessons from their creative work. Whatever the medium, the key in storytelling is cutting the extraneous and the superfluous, keeping in only what helps tell your story.

We aren’t in control of our circumstances, but we are “ridiculously in charge” of how we tell our story.

  • Observe, log and refute what Dr. Henry Cloud calls the “three P’s.”
  • Realize your circumstances are a “scene” of your life, not the “movie.”
  • Take control of telling your story. Cut the extraneous and superfluous–keep what helps tell your story.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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2 thoughts on “When You’re Helpless and Things Go Wrong

  1. Amy, I’m glad it helped! I heard Dr. Cloud share this message over four years ago and it has stuck with me to this day. It’s a powerful reminder that I think we all need from time to time.