Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Pulling Yourself Up By the Bootstraps

Photo by Moko 2014
How many times have you heard someone saying to themselves, "I should be able to stop complaining and pull myself up by my bootstraps"? How many times have you heard someone saying that to you? Maybe a well meaning parent, a friend, your partner? Finally, how many times have you said it to yourself? After hearing several clients refer to this saying while addressing their difficult situations, I decided I have some issues with it. 

First, I don't think this saying makes much sense. Have you ever tried to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? If you have, you know it is simply impossible, just as it often seems impossible to get yourself out of the unhealthy relationship you're involved in, or depression, or financial crisis, etc. The last thing one wants to hear in such situations is to get over their problem. Regardless of its intended meaning, to me this saying only reinforces the sense of helplessness about the problematic situation: it is impossible to pull myself by the bootstraps, just as it’s impossible to fix my life.

Underlying Beliefs
In cognitive-behavioral therapy the deeply enrooted beliefs about self, others, and the world are called schemas. Schemas are created very early on in our lives based on our observations which, to a large degree, come from our relationships with early caregivers (usually parents). As young children we cannot figure everything out on our own, we also don’t think critically and we don’t question the reality of the environment that we have to live in. If we hear that the world is a scary and unpredictable place, we believe it. If we hear people are kind in nature, we believe that, too. If we hear we should always share our goods with the less fortunate, we follow it as a rule. But if we hear we should only take care of ourselves because no one else will, we will internalize this, as well. Finally, if we are told we are fully responsible for our fate, both the successes and the failures, we will believe it. And, as a consequence we may believe we should be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps in any circumstance. As you can imagine, the early beliefs instilled in us have a significant impact on our perceptions of reality (both internal and external) and on our functioning as adults.

“I’m the Master of My Fate” Schema
Most of us would like to believe that we are the master of our fate. Believing that one is in charge of their own life is what psychologists call internal locus of control. Having internal locus of control is usually a good thing, as it helps people actively work on goals they have set for themselves. However, fully and rigidly believing that everything that happens to us is because of our choices can prove to be a very misleading assumption. Believing that you’re fully responsible for your fate can lead a depressed person to believe she is weak and worthless because she cannot control her negative state of mind. It may make her believe that since she is depressed it must mean she is choosing to be depressed. Unemployment, loneliness, unhealthy relationships, losses - they all can lead otherwise healthy and competent people to a sense of sadness, disappointment, and worthlessness. Judging one's personal qualities based on negative life circumstances can lead to a sense of helplessness and despair. It is an easy road to low self-esteem, self-defeating thoughts and possibly depression.

Under Your Control
As mentioned before, a sense of control in life is very important, and without it we would simply wait for things to happen to us instead of taking action. However, it is important to remember that as much as we can control much in our lives, we cannot control everything. If we could fully choose or control our fate, most likely we would be beautiful, successful, secure, and most importantly, happy. Yet there is a level of realistic control that we have over our lives and this is well articulated by the words of Viktor Frankl: “The last of human freedoms - the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances.”  The realistic news is that we cannot pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and we should quit using this deceiving metaphor. The optimistic news is that we always have a level of control over our lives and we can choose our attitude when facing life circumstances. 

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