The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 164: Wooden Legs & Excuses

Have you ever met someone with a wooden leg? Not a real wooden leg, but a metaphorical one?
In the 60’s, a psychiatrist called Eric Berne, turned some common problematic psychological processes into what he called “Games People Play.” One of which he called the wooden leg game. Imagine a man with a wooden leg who has used it as an explanation for why his life is unfulfilled all of his life, he would often say “If it wasn’t for this wooden leg, I could have been an athlete.” Or when he complains that he’s unemployed he says “What do you expect from a guy with one leg?”
The wooden leg game can hold us back from enjoying life and feeling fulfilled, and there are many things that can be your wooden leg. People will say “Yes, I have alcohol problems, but what do you expect from the child of alcoholic parents” or “Of course I have trust issues, if you’d been cheated on as much as I have you’d never trust men either.” And I think it’s worth looking at these processes as “explanations” for why we feel the way that we do and not “excuses.”
Understanding why we behave or think or feel the way we do might help us to move on, but we have to analyse what we’re doing now that could be reinforcing these excuses. Sometimes we even use someone in our family as our wooden leg, It’s not uncommon for me to hear someone say “I’m lonely but what do you expect? If it wasn’t for my wife wanting me home every night, I’d be able to see my friends more.” Or we use our social class as a wooden leg to hold ourselves back from applying for jobs because we don’t identify ourselves as someone who’s successful. Yet it’s not what happens to us but how we react to it that either holds us back or moves us forwards. In fact there are plenty of successful businesses people that come from quite poor backgrounds but rather than it holding them back it gave them the push to strive for better. Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling, Ralph Lauren, Steve Jobs, these people experienced great hardship and I wonder if they did well in life despite there struggles or actually did well because of them?
I once heard a woman say that she was given some sympathy at a pedestrian crossing because she was in a wheelchair, a stranger took pity on her and said “It must be horrible to be trapped in your wheelchair.” The woman in the wheelchair couldn’t believe that someone would ever think that way because to her the wheelchair had liberated her. If anything she was trapped in the house without it, the wheelchair gave her freedom not entrapment. It’s interesting that what one person sees as a reason to be held back someone else sees as the exact opposite.

As a therapist I regularly see clients who have had some awful experiences in their life, they have depression or anxiety and have maybe been through some very traumatic things. But, fortunately for me, they rarely say “Yes, I have depression but what do you expect from someone who was abused?” The fact that they’ve come for therapy shows me that they know that they shouldn’t feel the way they do anymore. They recognise that their emotions and reactions belong in the past.
Maybe that’s where anyone with these sorts of experiences needs to start, recognising that having such traumatic experiences explains WHY they can be prone to depression and anxiety but not excuse them from learning how to feel better.
The problem is that this process isn’t always conscious, sometimes in the back of our mind almost totally unconscious, is the idea that if we can’t use it as an excuse anymore then we’ve only got ourselves to blame for our failures and that’s quite scary, blaming ourself and taking responsibility for our own actions. It’s especially hard if you’ve got a lifetime of programming in your head that says you have to hide in order to be safe.
This is what’s often called in psychology our “locus of control”, locus is just a technical word for location and we use the phrase “locus of control” to try and help people understand about where they feel their life is being controlled.
It ranges between internal and external. Is it YOU that controls your life or the external world? It’s generally accepted that having an “internal” locus of control is better for us because if we feel that it’s very much external then we can feel quite insignificant. But we don’t want to feel that EVERYTHING is our own fault either. We need a comfortable middle ground that is slightly more internal than external. People who feel that their locus of control is quite external tend to say that they feel that their life is in someway, already mapped out for them by some predetermined destiny and because of this are far less likely to be happy, They tend to believe that their own behaviour doesn't matter a great deal because any rewards in life are generally outside of their control. They become the pessimists who are less likely to apply for a job because they believe that the successful candidate has already been chosen, they’re even less likely to vote in an election because they feel that their vote wouldn't count.
Yet someone with an internal locus of control, who doesn't tend to think that destiny or luck plays a particularly big part in determining what happens in their life, are usually the happy optimists who don’t tend to see themselves as a victim. They are more likely to be optimistic because they can easily imagine the outcomes that they want in life as well as the steps they need to take to make it all happen. They learn from their mistakes and don’t see that their past experiences shape their future.
Obviously it’s better to have that sort of attitude but it can be really hard to let go of our wooden legs and excuses because it means challenging so many thoughts and beliefs about self, about the type of person we identify as, how we fit in with the world around us. But it’s important, not just for the big things but for the little things too. Of course challenge the thoughts that no man is trustworthy because you were sexually assaulted once, but also challenge the thought that says “I don’t have time to practice mental relaxation exercises because my job is too hectic” or “I can’t eat healthily because I don’t have time in the morning to prepare anything.” If we can see that WE are ultimately in control of our life, not those external factors that we can’t do anything about, then we’re in a great position to start making some positive changes.