The 5 Laws of Personal Constraints: Law 3
If you missed the first two parts of this blog series, here are the links to read them:
Law Three: Our Personal Constraints Play Themselves Out in Every Area of Our Lives
There’s a reason why I encouraged Peter to get specific feedback from both his colleagues and his wife: issues that show up at the office are likely to follow us home. You may have heard the phrase, “Wherever you go, there you are.” This is true for our constraints, as well; they go wherever we go. The point of recognizing this is not to condemn ourselves and our limitations but to more fully understand their impact. If you are difficult at work, odds are good that you are just as difficult at home.
Personal constraints come in many forms. Although most are behavioral, now and then there will be a physical or intellectual constraint so distracting that it works against everything else you may be doing to get ahead in life. Yet as obvious as it may be, everyone pretends not to see it, thinking they are doing a kindness, when in fact, they are simply hurting the other person by not addressing it.
Take Richard’s situation, for example.
We had just finished meeting with the senior executives of a company with whom we were working. Before I left I wanted to debrief with them. I had a question for one of the two men sitting at the table with me.
“Tell me about Richard,” I said. “He seems like a bright guy with a lot of potential.”
The CEO quickly responded, “He’s very smart, and he has a great work ethic.”
My next question surprised them. “Well, tell me about the knot on his head. Do you know anything about it?”
They looked at each other. It seemed that neither of them wanted to acknowledge what was—to me—Richard’s most defining physical characteristic: a large, protruding bump on one side of his forehead. One of them finally answered. “When he was hired he had that knot on his head, but it’s gotten bigger since then. At first it wasn’t a problem because his job and area of responsibility were limited. But these days he’s in meetings with customers all day, and he represents the company at many functions. We’ve never talked to him about it—how would we even bring it up?”
“I’ll talk to him and see what the problem is,” I said. They both looked shocked that I wanted to attempt a discussion about it. I scheduled our next visit and asked that I also be allowed to meet with a few of their people privately, including Richard, so that I could go over their personal-constraint data with them.
I didn’t understand why no one had talked to him about it earlier, but then again, I’m a shrink. My desire is to address everything that appears to be affecting someone’s well-being and chances for success in life. Although some things are unchangeable in life, I believe that category is much smaller than we think. In this case I wanted to know more. Although it was a delicate issue, its ramifications were not. How do you ignore a knot on a man’s forehead the size of a golf ball? It was just about dead center over his right eye.
When I returned, Richard and I sat down in his office, and after we had visited for a few minutes, I brought it up.
“Richard, tell me about the knot on your head, will you?”
He looked at me the same way his two bosses had and said, “Does it bother you?”
“No, not at all,” I replied. “But it’s probably getting in the way of where you are going professionally, and that bothers me. I’d like to know if there’s some way to help.”
Then he told me the story: “Flip, when I was in high school, I was a tough ball player, but I was only five feet nine inches and that didn’t cut it, so I did steroids. I had some knots come up on my arms and one on my back within six months, and then this one started growing within a year. At the time I thought it was worth it to compete against the big guys, but now I have to live with the fallout of the choices I made back then.”
I asked, “Have you ever had anyone look at it to see if it could be removed?”
He shook his head thoughtfully. “What do you think your wife would say if we asked her about it?”
He looked at me and chuckled. “Do you know any woman who wants to be married to a knot-head?” I appreciated his candor and sense of humor about the whole thing, and we agreed that his knot might not have to be the first thing people noticed about him. He would go to his doctor to see what could be done about it.
Richard got the appointment, and after examination, the doctor encouraged him to have it removed immediately because the mass had begun to attach itself to his skull. His insurance paid for most of it, and his boss paid the deductible. With his lump removed and his life most likely lengthened, Richard’s story had a happy ending.
But the questions are worth examining: Is it good for a man to go through life with a knot on his head that no one ever mentions? Should people let friends, family members, and coworkers go from day to day with something that is obviously hindering their performance, appearance, and/or success without looking for a way to help them if at all possible? Is risking a moment or two of embarrassment worth getting rid of—once and for all—the elephant in the room? Richard’s knot went with him everywhere and likely was the focus of more than one private joke or conversation.
Of course this is not a typical situation, and as a psychotherapist, I do have the benefit of people understanding I am there to help them. In matters that require extra sensitivity, generally the privilege of speaking about personal or difficult subjects must be earned through relationship and trust. And you might first check your motives and make sure you are doing it because you want what is best for the other person, not because it bothers you.
Further, many of us probably don’t realize some personal constraints are just as visible to others as a “knot on our head”—constraints that people won’t mention yet are distracting them from our greatest attributes. We need to look honestly at the impact every constraint has on us and on those around us—loved ones, family members, employees—all of whom deserve the best we can give them. There is a good chance that we might find something we need to improve. We might even discover it isn’t as difficult as we thought and that the rewards far outweigh our initial fears.