I have a couple of critical questions I ask clients when I first start working with them. One of them is “what percentage of your life is currently your own?” It’s always enlightening to see what comes back. The answers range from 5% to 100%, with the majority sitting in the 10- 30% bracket.
The implications of this are quite curious. When we look at it, we are all 100% in charge of our lives. It’s only that sometimes we feel that we aren’t because of the choices we’ve made.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things that may have happened in your world that you did not choose, that happened to you. Things like getting cancer, having a child born with serious disabilities, having dysfunctional and ailing parents, or a spouse leaving you a single parent. You did not plan for these things, you did not want them, and now you are faced with having to deal with them.
And yet we are always at choice. We get to decide how we interpret these events and what we do about them. Deciding to look after an ailing parent, or a sick child is a choice, not an obligation. We can always choose not to. Most of us would find this a poor immoral choice, but it is a choice nonetheless. We get to decide whether we are the victim or the victor in our own narrative.
And yet we can slip into unhelpful stories.
There is a scale of how we can choose to see the role we play in our own story.
At the worst end of the scale we may feel like a martyr. Nothing in our world is about us, everything is about everyone else. There is a kind of seductive appeal to being a martyr. To be in service is a noble calling! However the one thing I know about martyrs is that by definition they end up dead. When we sacrifice ourselves for others there is no room left for growth. It’s a dead-end track. This is neither a happy nor productive place to be, no matter how ‘noble’.
Slightly more appealing is feeling like a slave in our own world. Similar to martyr, we are at the beck and call of everyone else. Whereas a martyr has surrendered their entire self, a slave retains a sense of who they are. We know life could be better, but we feel stuck, trapped. Resentment burns strong. Not a great place to be.
We may choose to act as a servant in our own world. We wake up and we feed the dog, walk the chickens, get the kids ready for school, empty the dishwasher, then it’s off to a job where we fulfil the requirements of our colleagues and our boss.
As a servant, we may find a small corner of the day that is just for us. It might be in the shower, or in the bathroom, or even that 15 minutes where we can read a magazine or have a coffee. It’s not fabulous but it’s better than being a slave.
The tipping point is when we decide that we are in control and we start dictating terms to those around us. As masters of our world we keep a tight rein on the people and activities around us. We delegate ruthlessly, we direct forcefully, and we have it all on our own terms. While this is better than being a servant, it is still quite exhausting as it requires a fair amount of force to get people to cooperate.
At the other end of the spectrum is the ruler. Like the martyr, the ruler is in service to the people around them. There is one caveat. The ruler makes all their own choices and is in complete authorship of their own experience. They choose whom they serve, they choose how they serve, and delight in the doing of it. They live in abundance, they have plenty of time and energy for everything that they choose to put their focus on, they move through their day with grace, elegance, and poise. They emanate peace and happiness.
Confession: I have often been more martyr and slave in my own world than ruler!
How ironic when I am actually my own boss, I run my own business, and I make all the decisions. I more than most could easily embody ruler, but here I was – still trapped by the seductive story of martyr, the heroic self-sacrificer, heading quickly to the gallows in humble duty to the cause.
We are all Rulers. We just need to choose the story and orient our choices from there.
I made a decision at the beginning of this year to be more Ruler. My theme word is Empress. It helps me to remember that every decision I make I make consciously and deliberately and on my own terms, with grace and poise.
I don’t always get it right but things are much better. I feel I have more space and grace day to day. I am enjoying my world a lot more than I did previously,
And the starting point was changing the story I told about my experience.
What story are you telling about your experience? Is that story serving you or are you serving it? What new story, and what new role could you take on that would create more space, time, and energy in your life and leadership?
Zoë is on a mission to encourage big thinkers with big hearts to make a big difference. She is passionate about showing leaders how to challenge limitations so they can live and lead with boundless energy, confidence, and conviction. With over 30 years experience developing leaders, she has published three books: Composure: How Centered Leaders Make the Biggest Impact, Moments: Leadership when it matters most, and Loyalty: Stop unwanted staff turnover, boost engagement, and create lifelong advocates. These are available here.