Control What You Can Control

By Lisa Bachman, Assistant Executive Director, Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida

After facing a great deal of bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome (TS), our youngest son, Justin, became a motivational speaker.   I traveled the country with him to over 150 schools in 16 states where he held full school assemblies for students in grades 5-12.

The theme of his program, Living Loud, is that every person should be empowered to live their own authentic life, no matter how different they are.  He uses stories from his childhood to illustrate how audience members can be proud to be themselves.

Often, I would be asked to do a presentation for parents. During the Q&A part of one speech, a parent asked how I handled a situation presented in one of his stories.  I was happy to answer and realized the story has a very universal application.

Justin received his diagnosis of TS when he was 12.  TS is a neurological condition that causes people impacted by it to make odd movements and noises, called tics, that they cannot control.  It has gotten him into some pretty sticky situations as he blurts out words that can be considered offensive and makes movements that can be considered odd.

The 7th grade year/13 years old is a very important time in the Jewish religion.  That is when many kids are having their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, a rite of passage that is often celebrated with a large party.  Because Justin did not have a lot of friends at that time, he didn’t get many invitations.  When that first one came, he was more excited than I had seen in a long time.  He broke land speed records filling out the response card to indicate he would be attending and running it to the mailbox.

Sadly, two weeks before the event, I received a call from the mother of the girl being Bat Mitzvah’ed.  She said Justin shouldn’t attend because his TS would scare the other kids.  Hence, the student’s question – How did my husband and I handle this situation?

During that call back in 2008, I tried to advocate for my son while assuming she knew very little about this condition.  I figured that if I educated her, or suggested some accommodations, she would change her mind.  Nope.  I was stunned and wasn’t sure how to react, so I simply said ok.

I felt the range of emotions.  Anger, hurt, disbelief.  My husband and I talked and decided that we could only control what we could control.  We could not control this mother, but we could control our son.  But, how could we tell him he wasn’t wanted at a party that he was so excited to attend?

As luck would have it, an opportunity presented itself.  He got into a little bit of trouble! Perfect, right!  Our “send back your parent of the year award” instinct was to punish him and tell him he wasn’t allowed to go.  Easy way out.

But, this didn’t work and eventually, we had to sit him down and have “the talk.”  We told him we did not have the power to affect the decision made by another person.  We reassured our son that this was not his fault, but the result of a choice we did not agree with.  Moreover, people make choices we don’t agree with all the time.

We stressed that he too had choices.  The most important one would be the way in which he would handle this situation.

Justin now had control of the situation.  We, however, set boundaries.  We gave him the leeway to figure out a solution within those boundaries.

Boundary one: he was allowed to feel whatever he chose to feel as long as he didn’t get lost or hung up in those feelings.  The situation was awful.  It was okay to be angry or anything else he felt.  But he had to find a constructive way to deal with those feelings and then move on and let it go.

Boundary two:  he was not allowed to have what we call the “victim mentality.”  He was not permitted to feel sorry for himself.  Even though something bad happened to him, it was just that, something that happened.  It did not change him as a person. The judgments of others should never impact the way we see ourselves.

We helped him understand that this event didn’t change anything.  Time heals.  He had to decide how long it would take him to move on and how he would move on.  His solution?  The night of that Bat Mitzvah, Justin opted to have a party of his own and he chose to be surrounded by people who he cared about and who cared about him.  He had to dig deep down inside himself to realize that the Bat Mitzvah simply was not the place for him to be at that time.

I do believe strongly that this story has universal application.  As parents, we tend to call this bullying, but this is not bullying.  In this case, it was exclusion, or simply a really tough situation that many kids face.  In fact, we as adults face these types of situations, too.  In the workplace, we are often faced with situations that make us scratch our heads or fume with anger – our reports get rejected; we are not selected to give a presentation when we know we would kick butt; we get left off a list for an important meeting.  It’s happened to all of us.  If we can start when they are young to equip them with tools, they will grow up ahead of the game.

The point is this – oftentimes things are simply out of our control.  Like Justin, we also have choices.  We can opt to take them personally.  Maybe in reality, it is personal.  But, so what! Every person has the power to take the “personal” out of the equation and make healthy choices.  It is easier said than done, but it isn’t impossible if we can find it deep within ourselves to really and truly make that choice.

If we realize that we are allowed to “feel our feelings,” then we can deal with them.  There are endless positive ways to deal with things.  I have a speed bag that I love to go punch.  Some people like “primal scream” therapy, others find being around friends does the trick.  Whatever works for you, do it.  (Small caveat – it should be healthy and legal!)  The goal is that the action of allowing yourself to work through “stuff” should give you a clear head to figure out how the situation should be handled.

As a manager of people, or as a parent, we must also remember to let our kids, or our team members, handle their own problems.

I know that I tend to be quick to want to solve everyone’s issues!  (Maybe it’s a mother thing!)  But, through experience, I’ve learned that’s typically not the best idea.  When we let our kids or our teams handle things, under guidance versus directives, we are sending a message that we have faith in them.

As the person in a position of power (as a parent or as a boss), it is our job to set boundaries, but, then, we need to let them run.  My husband and I have always been amazed by the great decisions our kids have made.  As a business leader, I’ve also been so proud of many of the teams I’ve led.

I truly have found that my success rate increases when I let my teams do their job.  I’ve really gotten better at learning to bite my tongue and keep my mouth shut!