Excuses, Excuses: The Carousel

Manager: “How’s it going?”

Employee: “Oh, man, I’m dealing with my ex-wife again. Had to bail her out of jail last night again.”

M: “Wow, that sounds dramatic.”

E: “Ha, never a dull moment with her still in my life, even when she’s not supposed to be. But until our daughter grows up, I guess that’s how it’s going to be.”

M: “Maybe, but I wonder where you might have control you’re not realizing.”

E:  “I dunno. I’ve gotta put my daughter first.”

M: “Of course, I’m just saying it might be helpful to look at where you do have control, rather than dwelling in the ways you don’t.”

E: “You know, the older I get, the more it looks like I have no control over my life at all.”

The Carousel is a place where different things seem to “come up” and get in the way on a regular basis but are too varied to appear obviously as a pattern, just like all the different horses on a carousel. They may all look different, but they’re doing the same thing. It appears often that the excuse-maker is simply unlucky, or going through a temporarily challenging period, but when nothing changes over time, you know you’re going ‘round and ‘round on The Carousel.

When you say to yourself, “With that person, there’s always something,” it’s a good clue they’re using this excuse. The root cause is often issues like not saying “no” or a dysfunctional life structure like an unhealthy marriage that stresses their entire life, causing lack of engagement and irresponsibility.

This is a complex and subtle form of victimhood where the individual is unable or unwilling to look at their life contextually and see that it’s not working. Such excuse-makers typically attract more and more difficulty as life attempts to wake them up to whatever unhealthy structure is at the root of their periodic (but consistent) drama.

As one of the purer forms of victimhood, The Carousel is a tricky excuse to unravel. The older and more well-worn the strategy, the more likely the excuse-maker has made it a part of their identity: a heroic, trooper kind of protagonist who is a poster-child for life’s cruel challenges. Variations range from hovering near rock-bottom to functionally managing it all, but always excluding thrival and fulfillment.

The above example is a true story of a man, let’s call him Adam, who paints my house as I write this. We have, of course, no agreement that I’m his coach, so there’s only so much I can say or do. He bailed his ex out of jail twice in one week for assaulting her boyfriend. This tells you everything you need to know about his over-responsibility.

Adam is a kind, noble, and deeply caring soul, who does outstanding work. But his over-responsibility velcros him to irresponsible people like his ex-wife, causing him to be constantly late to work, delaying projects, and therefore causing him to live paycheck to paycheck. This is a system that keeps him socioeconomically right where he is, when he is actually skilled enough to do high-end work, lead people, and earn a better living.

Unsurprisingly, Adam has a host of oral addictions. He smokes cigarettes, drinks lightly on the job, and eats a lot of junk food. Oral medications like this are common for over-responsible people, as they are food-like compensations for never feeling truly fed or fulfilled.

As is the case with so many excuses, a manager must lead the excuse-maker to see the underlying condition. Let’s continue the example above and pretend I’ve known Adam for a long time and have jurisdiction to coach him.

E: “You know, the older I get, the more it looks like I have no control over my life at all.”

M: “It makes sense that it feels that way. You’ve endured quite a lot of hardship and difficulty, and you carry it nobly.”

You get nowhere challenging The Carousel without acknowledging what they’ve been through. This is a bare minimum.

E: “Thanks, I appreciate that. I feel like you really get me.”

The safest bet in general is that you never give anyone difficult feedback until and unless they say something like this, and this is especially the case with strong forms of victimhood.

M: “You’re welcome. It’s a privilege to know you, and you’re doing a great job. I’ve got an observation that might help you, but I’m not sure if you’re open to hearing it.”

This is a technique for getting someone to “ask for it,” often relaxing some of the inevitable resistance. It’s a form of asking permission, especially useful when you’re not in a formal mentoring role.

E: “Sure, what is it?”

M: “Well, it seems to me that in content there’s always something coming up in your life that’s making it difficult. But in context, you’re the common denominator. Do you know what I mean?”

E: “I think so, yeah. You’re wondering what all the things have in common?”

M: “Sort of, yes. Certainly, there’s a randomness to it all, but what if there’s a way you contribute to it all and it’s a kind of pattern? If there were a pattern, what would it be?”

E: “I don’t know. I’ve always thought it was just bad luck.”

M: “Someone wiser than I once said, ‘We create our own luck.’ Why don’t you sit with this question for a while and see where it takes you. We can talk again about it soon.”

Leaving someone with an open-ended question like this is a powerful technique known as inquiry. The question works the way water wears away rock, but you must set up the question to be very intriguing to maximize their hunger to explore it.

Alternatively, what they do with the question tells you how ready they are to wake up. If the next day I asked Adam where the question took him and he forgot the conversation entirely, his dissociation would tell me he’s not ready. If on the other hand, he said was awake half the night thinking about it, it would invite some additional prodding.

Because it’s easy to see Adam’s over-responsibility, I would steer him toward seriously considering suing his ex for full custody of his daughter with limited visitation rights for her mother. The current situation maintains Adam’s destabilized life, enables his ex’s bipolar disorder, and continues to expose their daughter to the dangerous emotional state of her mother in unsupervised settings.

It also teaches their daughter unhealthy beliefs that predictably will cause her to parrot the behaviors as an adult, or overcorrect in rebellion and embody an equally unhealthy opposite strategy, like becoming a fiercely independent woman who cannot get emotionally close to anyone because she saw how closeness destroyed her father and kept her mother sick. This happens every day in our world.

If Adam could overcome his false over-responsibility and see that real responsibility sometimes requires one to cause pain in others for a greater good for all, a possible future would free him to stabilize his life economically, help his ex “hit bottom” so she might actually get help, and teach his daughter a valuable lesson in setting boundaries as well as shielding her from her mother’s toxicity.

Probably Adam setting firm boundaries would cause his ex to lean more heavily on her boyfriend’s support, which would likely reveal the weakness of and end that relationship, that is obviously deeply troubled. Observe how much dysfunction is held in place by what is ostensibly being a nice person.

It really is remarkable how if you listen closely, people tell you exactly what they need you to say to them. It is possible, even desirable, to inhabit this truth so deeply that you no longer experience your own free will, as if you are in a dance and they are actually leading. As one of my martial arts teachers and one of the greatest fighters in modern history, Peter Ralston, said, “Your opponent molds their own defeat as you are free to be molded.”

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