When my Japanese mother died, my American father left. I was one. I lived with my Japanese grandmother. He returned about a year later with a new wife, who didn’t want me. He left again. Over 40 years later, I hired a private detective and the detective gave me a telephone number. My father was an expat still living in Japan, and had been living at the same address all those years. I put the telephone number away in my desk.
A few months later, Thanksgiving Dinner was done and the TV was off. Everyone had gone to bed. The house was quiet except in the kitchen sink as I washed every dish, fork, spoon, knife, glass, cup, pot and pan. My mind wasn’t quiet though. It was racing with the thought of pulling out an international number and dialing. My stomach was in knots. I kept washing and drying. I put away every dish, fork, spoon, knife, glass, cup, pot and pan. I turned off all the lights downstairs and was about to head upstairs to bed. I looked in the office. I looked at the phone on my desk. I sat down and looked at the phone on my desk. I pulled out a folded piece of paper and opened it. I stared at the number on the paper. I got up to check on the clean kitchen several times.
I was suffering from “my father is going to desert me again” feeling. It’s the feeling I get when faced with doing anything that I think might hurt me. You know that feeling. It’s that feeling that makes you freeze in your tracks. You fear that something not so good is going to happen to you. Sometimes that “something not so good” is in fact bad, like serious bodily injury or death. But other times, “IT” just FEELS like it’s going to be as bad as serious bodily injury or death. You get the same FEELING when faced with a variety of IT’s:
- standing on a cliff looking down at a 50-foot jump into the ocean;
- having to go to work to answer an angry boss;
- going to the doctor when you think you might have cancer;
- having to write a report on something you know nothing about;
- returning a phone call from an angry client;
- returning a product that you may have broken to the store;
- balancing a checkbook for an account you think is overdrawn;
- saying no to someone because you just don’t want to say yes anymore.
And the list goes on.
When all these “ITs” get lost in the feelings, the feeling takes over, leaving you frozen.
That night, I wrote down “my father is going to desert me again” on a piece of paper. Writing this down helped me recognize the feeling for what it was: fear. I didn’t try to “fix” how I felt. I was familiar with the feeling, like an old hat. When I wrote it down, I realized that I had this feeling even when I was dealing with issues that had nothing to do with my father.
I then wrote down, “making a telephone call will not kill me.”
I stared at the two sentences and realized that the feeling and the action I was considering were not the same thing. By separating the feeling from the action, I learned I was able to move when I was otherwise frozen. I made a decision. I picked up the phone and dialed.
That night my “Decision Tree” was born. The process of separating the feeling from the possible action allowed me to see clearly what the fear was compared to the action. Sometimes I choose not to act. Other times I choose to act. But, I make a decision. It’s the decision that gets you unfrozen. Sometimes I do the exercise and write down two actions: two possible actions I can take. For example, on that Thanksgiving night, I could have written: (1) call; (2) don’t call. Either way, I had to decide. The key is to decide and commit to the action.
Yes, sometimes the decision may be the wrong one. At least you have moved forward. It’s better to make the wrong decision than to stay frozen by inaction.
This Decision Tree allowed me to face and deal with more and more small things in life that would freeze me. And with practice, I learned that the same process helped me get through some of those big things that freeze me, too.
Today, I remind myself to use my Decision Tree when I suddenly and urgently need to do #27 on my to-do list, when I haven’t touched #’s 1-26; when I suddenly and urgently need to clean out the junk drawer; when late on Thanksgiving night, I find myself checking on the clean kitchen for the third time.
I did speak to my father that night. It was one of the most memorable conversations of my life.