At SCHC, we assume that each adult is the author of his or her life. Even though we have limitations imposed on us, we’re still responsible to make decisions that dictate the quality of life we lead. I may be predisposed genetically to cancer or had an abusive upbringing, but this doesn’t let me off the hook for making choices. If I choose to blame my biology or upbringing for my miserable life, this is my choice, not a scientific fact of the universe. If I feel too insecure to be assertive and let others treat me as a doormat, I am making a choice to be victimized by others.
The great psychiatrist Irvin Yalom put it this way: “Responsibility means authorship. To be aware of responsibility is to be aware of creating one’s own self, destiny, life predicament, feelings, and if such be the case, one’s own suffering.” Even an individual’s unconscious is the responsibility of that person. As Yalom pointed out, “Whose unconscious is it?”
Today, though, we seem to be going through a period when many people don’t believe in authorship. After World War II, most people got very excited about individual freedom to make choices. But, curiously, it didn’t last. Within a generation, they seemed to resign themselves that they weren’t really free to be the authors of their lives. What was in control of their lives were outside forces. We often hear this in the news today. We’re at the mercy of a bad economy, crime, drugs, the @!*#% government, pollution, immigrants, and, at least in the US, some mysterious faction of conspirators who are screwing us over.
You should be aware that many experts don’t really believe we’re the authors of our lives. Some say that what actually controls us is society. Society tells us who we are and what we should do. Others say that what actually controls us is our brain chemistry. In fact, modern brain science has pointed out that we’re not even conscious of 90 percent of what we do. And there are some famous experiments from brain scientist Benjamin Libet, who showed our brains actually begin simple behaviours, such as bending our wrist, a half-second before we’re even conscious of the action! There are even some brain scientists (and philosophers) who are quite convinced there isn’t even a “me” or “I,” so there is no person who actually makes decisions!
Still, we feel as if we’re in charge. And there’s a lot of research that says even if our desire to be the author of our lives turns out to be an illusion, it’s still a good thing.
In this blog, we’ll take a quick look at authorship.
Addiction and Lack of Authorship
We know that those with addictions are fond of sloughing their authorship onto others. They typically blame external forces for their suffering: a bad relationship, jerk boss, lousy upbringing, or a black cloud hanging over them. Some blame the “drug” or the “addiction”. I’ve seen clients upset when they learn that they were born with a genetic predisposition for addiction. It’s as if they feel they are not in control of their lives, not the authors.
Getting past feeling a victim is one of the most essential, and most difficult, struggles for those in early recovery. And not just addictions by the way. Feeling victimized by having posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, for instance, one of the greatest barriers to overcoming PTSD.
Addiction and lack of authorship seem to go hand in hand for the vast majority of those who succumb to the drug. There are many reasons for this. For example, psychologist Jeff Singer tells us that the most famous coping skill that drug users develop is the F-it attitude. This attitude really says F-me. It is a belief that, in the end, my life doesn’t matter. The F-it attitude is pretty much a necessity if I’m going to do something that leads to severe financial, family, work, psychological, and physical problems.
Authorship is Good for Health
We know from lots of research that feeling we are in control of our lives is necessary for health. Those who feel in control live longer, make fewer visits to the doctor and have fewer health complaints.
As we mentioned in the introduction, it may be that believing that I am the author of my life is an illusion. But this doesn’t make it a bad thing (FYI an illusion is not something that is untrue. An illusion is something that doesn’t appear as it is, such as a magic trick). There’s even a theory in psychology called “positive illusion”. This theory says that an individual thinks more highly of himself or herself than others do. I believe that I am a firm decision-maker—a good thing. But my partner says I’m stubborn, and my neighbours say I’m pig-headed. According to research, those with positive illusions (not delusions) are healthier than those who don’t think highly of themselves.
The Story We Tell Ourselves
Perhaps the best way to be the active author of your life is to be aware of the story you tell yourself of who you are and how you fit in the world around you. We’ve talked many times in the online program of the work of psychologist Dan McAdams who says we are the story we tell ourselves. If the way you make sense of your life is that you are a victim who has no power, that becomes your reality. If the way you make sense of your life is that you know yourself, have goals and are quite capable of making choices, then that’s your reality. It depends on the story.
Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who is well versed in brain science (and works closely with psychologists and computer engineers), argues that our “self” is a “center of narrative gravity”. According to Dennett, our personal narrative of who we are dictates how we make self of ourselves. In his words, “Our tales are spun, but for the most part, we don’t spin them; they spin us”. Interestingly, Dennett (unlike McAdams) doesn’t believe that each of us has a “self” who makes decisions. He says this is an illusion. Still, as we’ve discovered, positive illusions are good for our health.
Regardless of whether you’re a fan of McAdams or Dennett, it seems that evolution has given us this need to create a story of who we are and how we fit in society. There must be survival and health benefits attached to this feeling.
So being the author means writing a personal narrative that helps you live a good life.
Quick Tips on Being the Author of Your Life
There are lots of tricks and strategies you can use to practice being the author of your life. Here are three common ones:
Teach people how to treat you—We teach others how to treat us. If you don’t stick up for yourself, some will treat you like a doormat. If you set personal boundaries with others, you teach them that you are quite capable of making decisions for yourself. If you get angry easily, you teach others to keep away from you. If you listen to others, you teach them that you care about them.
Give up blaming—Being the active author of your life demands giving up positioning yourself as a victim. Those who live contented lives do not blame others or events or conditions for their miserable lives. If you always blame something outside yourself for your miserable life, that’s your choice.
Take responsibility for decisions—Those suffering from addictions have a tough time taking ownership of their behaviours. Of course, much of this has to do with the stigma of addiction. It’s hard to be open about a problem when TV, family, and society point a shaming finger at them. But being the active author of your life means taking ownership of choices, even the bad ones.