I can’t wear that!The Life You Choose, Introduction

A granddaughter goes shopping with her grandmother and finds a cute jacket in the junior’s section of the department store. The granddaughter loves the color on her grandmother and knows the grandmother is small enough to fit into the jacket. But the grandmother takes one look at the style and says, “I can’t wear that!”

Does the grandmother really mean she can’t wear the jacket? No. She easily could pull the jacket around her shoulders, sliding her arms in the sleeves and pulling the front panels around to button them. It is physically possible for her to put on the jacket.

What she means is that she shouldn’t wear the jacket. Somewhere, written in her mind, is a rule that women her age do not wear jackets that look like the one her granddaughter chose. What is this rule? “That jacket is too young for you. You are too old for that jacket.”

Does age impact the woman’s ability to slip on the jacket? No. She’s still just as capable of wearing the jacket as before. Instead, somewhere she understood that certain styles are appropriate for certain ages, therefore she should not wear this particular style of jacket.

The granddaughter looks at the grandmother and says, “Sure you can! It would look great on you!”

“No! What would people say if they saw me in that? What would my friends say?”

“Who cares?! If it looks good on you, wear it! Don’t you like the way it looks?”

The woman has to admit that the cut and color do look good on her. But she just can’t. She has aged out of wearing clothes like this because the culture she values tells her that she has.

So why does the fact that she “shouldn’t” wear this jacket mean so much to her? Why should it determine what she wears and doesn’t wear?

Because she wants to fit in, she wants to be accepted. Instinctively we want to belong. We desire to be in relationship with others and be a part of a community, therefore we don’t want to risk being shunned by the people in our community whose opinions matter most to us. We want to fit in and find our place with others. The woman wants to remain secure in her position among her peer group. She doesn’t want to risk being judged or teased, further risking the possibility she could be shunned. If she shows up too often in the “wrong” clothes, her friends might stop inviting her to lunches and parties.

Before you judge this woman too harshly, check yourself. We all make decisions based on how we anticipate others will react to those decisions. The desire to belong is a base human instinct, rooted in survival and self-protection. This is a deep motivator because there is safety in numbers.

About seven years ago I became interested in the underlying factors that motivate us to make decisions for our lives. We all have our own systems for how we make decisions. Some of us like to make pro and con lists while others ask advice from any and everyone. Some like to “go with their gut” while others want plenty of time to weigh all possibilities, and even some impossibilities.

But I have been increasingly interested in why we make our decisions. I see people, myself included, make choices counter to all logic and in direct contrast to what is in their own self-interest. Reason does not always reign because there are emotions and influences under the surface that often take control, steering the ship in a different direction.

Over time I have come up with three main sources of influence that impact our decision making. I began examining each of these factors in my personal thought processes and have learned much about myself as a result. I also have been more empowered in my decision making because I better understand why I feel drawn to one choice over another. I have been able to go back to some decisions and better understand what influences impacted my choice that, at the time, I did not see.

Most of the time we jump to the how before examining the why then become confused when we make decisions contrary to what the how dictated. If we step back, instead, to consider the motivators, we claim some control over the influences in order to make better decisions. This empowerment allows us to accept the reasons why we don’t change certain behaviors by giving us space to realize we value one influence over another.

As I have used these categories for considering my motivators, I have found empowerment, better self-understanding, and even a good bit of forgiveness and grace for myself and others.

I break it down into four categories total: The life you could have; the life you should have; the life you want; and the life you choose.

The life you could have: The foundational step is a reckoning of all our limitations and abilities. Honestly, what is within your capability? This step includes examining our physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, and geographical limitations. I might dream of becoming an Olympic snowboarding champion, but I’m a 45-year-old living in Georgia with three children to raise. There are more than a few real limitations that prevent me from achieving that goal.

Be careful when taking stock of your life! There will be surprises – realizations that some things are within your capacity that you had decided weren’t. There will be losses to mourn – realizations that you are more limited in other ways that you had previously allowed yourself to accept. Also, we have a habit of sliding “limitations” into this category that truthfully belong in the next…like the grandmother in the opening story saying, “I can’t wear that,” when she really means she “shouldn’t.”

The life you should have: This is by far and away the most challenging step and the one that takes the longest. A way to begin tackling this step might be to ask yourself, when you think you “should” or “shouldn’t” do something, whose voice is in your mind? It can be a parent, a grandparent, a friend, an influencer you follow on social media, cultural norms, your immediate community norms…the list goes on and on. Slow down with this step. Take time to truthfully identify the voices you have given authority in your life to set rules for what is and isn’t acceptable.

Like examining the “coulds” of your life, you will have moments of celebration and gratitude followed by moments of anger, resentment, and sadness. You may realize you love someone deeply but the “should” they implanted in you is not useful or healthy and it takes some reconciliation to love someone, even a mentor or grandparent, while also recognizing they didn’t consistently give you the best advice.

It’s ok if you find yourself bogged down in this step for a while. It’s the most difficult to unpack. This has been the factor that has demanded the most of my time, not only in ferreting out the motivations for my decision making processes, but also in retreats and workshops I’ve led on this topic. It takes a long time to uncover all the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” for people, helping them comprehend the large number of sources for these as well as recognize that some voices are healthy and positive factors for them while others are not.

For those of you who are deeply rooted in your religious tradition, I include in this step a discernment piece: according to my relationship with God, what do I feel called to do. In other words, from a moral, theological, and faith perspective, what are the rules guiding my “should” and “shouldn’t” considerations? Notice I did not say “church” considerations. Churches and religious communities sometimes provide beneficial rules but many establish toxic and unhealthy limitations on people. How you discern that the divine might be guiding you should include a differentiation between what you feel morally led to do versus how the culture of your religious community says you should behave.

The life you want: Only after we consider our real limitations as well as the rules we’ve adopted from outside sources can we start to examine our desires. I might not have allowed myself to want something because I decided it was outside of my capabilities. However, upon further examination I realize I can achieve my desire, I simply had allowed a cultural expectation to get in my way.

Setting aside what you “could” do and all of the voices telling you what you “should” do, what is it you want for yourself? What do you love? What do you hate? What sets your soul on fire and what bores you? This will be an easy step for some while others will have to slow down and weigh each thing against those “should” voices. Do I want that for myself, or do I think society expects me to want it?

The life you choose: Finally, you are more empowered than before to decide. Similarly, you might not change a thing but can find peace in understanding why you do the things you do and no longer must battle with yourself to make changes you honestly don’t want. Weighing the three categories, how is it you choose to live?

The grandmother decides not to buy the jacket recommended by her granddaughter because she wants to fit in with her peer group. Alternatively, she could decide to buy the jacket because she wants to strengthen her relationship with her granddaughter, embrace her own playful side, or recognize that she’s in her 70s, can still fit into a junior’s size, and that makes her feel great! It’s a small decision but by taking a few minutes to consider the influences guiding her decision, she can make an informed choice with a fuller understanding of the motivations and implications of her decision.

The truth is that we make hundreds of small decisions every day that determine the kind of life we’re living. From the time we wake up to the food we eat to the voices we give authority to in our minds we are not making seemingly insignificant choices but are setting behaviors and living into expectations, whether our own or someone else’s.

As is recommended in the title, this post is the start of a series. I’ll take time to dig in more deeply to each category, especially when it comes to the “shoulds” of our lives. I’ll tag these posts “Life You Choose” to make them easier to find on my blog in case you decide to follow it. And please comment! Let me know areas you’d like for me to explore further. Every time I lead a retreat or workshop on this topic, the group finds other avenues to investigate and different ways to apply this matrix.

If you’re interested in having me lead a workshop for a group or organization, or you’re interested in attending a workshop, drop me a note via email or mail me a letter. My weekends are limited and I’m starting to book engagements for the spring and summer of 2023.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Angela A Stanley says:

    I would love to attend a workshop.


  2. lov2shoot says:

    Keep your ideas and thoughts coming!


  3. lov2shoot says:

    Keep your ideas and thought coming!


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