Why We Can't Seem to Get Out of Our Own Way

Aug 08, 2021

"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations." - Charles Swindoll

The Achiever’s Dilemma

Naomi loved the thrill of a crisis. This is what I was made for, she thought every time she got the call to turn around a failing business, squash a public relations disaster, or revive a dysfunctional team.

A renowned fixer, Naomi lived up to her reputation of being calm under pressure, savvy, and decisive. Supremely confident in her well-honed abilities, Naomi felt that a crisis brought out the best of her—until she faced a crisis of her own.

On her forty-fifth birthday, in response to a yearly mammogram, she received devastating news. She had advanced breast cancer, the disease that had taken her mother at the same age.

After the diagnosis, Naomi went into crisis management mode, contacting experts, researching, rallying her friends and family, and adopting a strict organic nutrition plan. But six months into her treatment, when she became a research participant in my dissertation study, Naomi seemed anything but confident and in control.

“I guess I can’t manage my way out of this one,” she said with a weary sigh.

The Caretaker’s Dilemma

Selena served as the associate director for clinical services at a large social service agency. She had ambitions to one day serve on the leadership team for the organization but had been passed over for the top job several times. Now, at age fifty and with twenty-five years dedicated to this agency, she feared she had nowhere to go.

When I asked Selena why she felt she had been looked over for promotion, she stated, “I don’t understand. We say we’re all about relationships, and I give and give and give. I’m always remembering our staff’s birthdays. I listen to their personal struggles.”

As I probed for other possible explanations, Selena admitted the board director had advised her, “He said I needed to challenge the staff instead of coddling them. I don’t get it. I thought we were here to care.”

Even more painful, when I asked Selena who was nurturing her, she had no response. Her eyes full of tears, she said, “I guess nobody.”

The Intellect’s Dilemma

Andres reminded me of a piano player as he tapped his fingertips on the table. His voice even had a sharp rhythm like that of a ticking metronome. Andres' frequent glances at the clock made it clear that his time was limited. We would stop immediately at the end of the hour.

An economist, Andres had worked for the Ministry of Finance in his home country, ascending to national prominence at a young age as an active member of his national political party. Although he had recently lost a primary election, the crisis he shared when I asked him to describe his most disappointing career experience seemed surprisingly minor.

With unleashed emotion, Andres expressed the distress he felt over a document his ministry had sent out full of errors and incorrect information. Although not publicly released, it was given to legislators behind the scenes before he recognized the economic forecasting errors contained within and quickly withdrew the document.

Andres felt humiliated and embarrassed, perceiving himself to be a victim of his own bad judgment in trusting others to do the work.

Andres' solution to his crisis of competence? Doubling down on what led him astray in the first place. His route to getting back on track was straightforward for him: an increased commitment to the quality-assurance process in his department through micromanagement.

The Hero’s Dilemma

Naomi’s belief that she could “achieve” her way out of anything—working harder, faster, longer in the face of disaster—had been her source of confidence and professional identity for decades. Now, the futility of that mindset was the dilemma with which she struggled.

Selena’s dilemma was being so attached to her talent of caretaking that she couldn’t see the bigger picture. She was stuck, feeling unappreciated and invisible.

Andres’ insistence on being correct overshadowed a desire to grow. Instead of viewing his dilemma as an opportunity to reflect and consider a different perspective, he dug in his heels, recommitting to his initial interpretation of what was at stake and what he had to prove.

Naomi, Selena, and Andres suffered from what I call the Achiever's, Caretaker's, and Intellect’s Dilemma, respectively. Each had crafted successful roles for navigating career and relationships. Distinctive personality characteristics evident early in life had melded into an adult identity and reputation.

Although these qualities began as natural talents to build upon, by midlife, the engrained personas had come to limit rather than enrich them.

When these accomplished professionals encountered a situation that challenged how they defined themselves, they were thoroughly confused as to why their normal superpowers (achieving, caring, being brilliant) were ineffective in the face of their self-identified career crises.

The range of consequences and outcomes was vast, from a potentially fatal illness to a stalled career to a bruised ego, yet the emotion and verbiage each participant used to describe their experiences were remarkably similar, as well as the hero’s journey/archetype we so often see in stories:

  • The Achiever hears the crisis alarm and rallies the troops to battle the giants.
  • The Caretaker offers safe refuge or a magical healing potion.
  • The Intellect serves as the oracle or all-knowing mentor.

We are genetically coded to revert to our reptile brain when the going gets tough -- reverting back to what has worked for us in the past. Except this time, the challenge is different; the crisis not only doesn’t follow the rules we believe to be in place, it changes the game entirely, and we’re left feeling lost and powerless.

This inclination, along with the Achiever's, Caretaker's, and Intellect's Dilemmas, point to the mind traps that can ensnare us as we seek the path of transformational learning in crisis.

And while transforming and growing through crisis is no easy feat, for any of our characters, recognizing our own roles and the stories we tell ourselves point us exactly at the very traps we can become aware of.

Do you see yourself in any of these archetypes? What story do you hold for your past, and how might that very inclination be your source of struggle when a crisis hits?

This is a modified re-telling of a few pages from Chapter 5 of my book Never Waste a Crisis. The rest of that chapter dives into the roles we've fallen into, some that serve us well and some that limit us when life gets tough.

Stay connected and continue learning about how humans respond to crisis based on the characters they play in their own stories -- as well as how to recognize and maneuver around these traps we set for ourselves by joining the Surviving & Thriving Together Newsletter below!

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