The Life Chart
The Life Chart is an exercise that’s easiest to explain through an example.
When I was sixteen, my mom asked me to step in for half an hour while she went to run some errands. Stepping in meant attending to customers in our retail store.
While she was out, a woman came in with her teenage son. Soccer season was starting and he needed new soccer shoes. I sold them a pair of fairly expensive ones and they left. Not long after my mom returned.
“Anything happen while I was out?”
Pleased with my success I told her about the soccer shoes I had sold.
I pointed them out.
“That’s the new series,” she said, a little disappointed. “They practically sell themselves! Who did you sell them to?”
This being a small town it wasn’t hard to explain who the client had been.
“Oh dear,” she replied. “They really don’t have all that much money!”
This, of course, is not something I can be expected to know about, cos I don’t actually work there, I’m just stepping in. Even so, she went on to tell me that, “New series sell themselves. You want to sell from that rack,” and she pointed at the Sales. “Cos those series are incomplete and we don’t want them occupying space forever. Only if there isn’t anything in their size, do you go to newer series, but never jump to the newest! Only go there when there’s nothing else in their size! Cos if it’s the newest they want, they’ll come in asking for those.”
I would have assumed people are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about what they want to buy, but this isn’t actually true. Many people buy what you put in front of them. And if you typically sell quality, as we do, they’ll just trust you and that’s the end of it. And let’s be honest, who cares if the collection is the newest or not: these are sports goods. Quality first!
Anyway, my mom had to leave for another errand and since it wasn’t all that busy, she left me to field the shop once more. Another mother and son came in, also for soccer shoes. As per my instructions I directed them to the Sales rack, we went through all the available pairs until they found what they needed, they paid and left.
Five minutes later my mom returned and I proudly told her I had done what she had told me to do: “I have sold that last pair of Adidas from the Sales rack!”
“Who to?” she immediately asked. I described them and she frowned, shaking her head. “These people are loaded. You should have sold them an expensive pair.”
So, let’s head back to the Life Chart.
And the first question is: “Tell me about an event that comes to mind.”
Well, this event jumped out, because it was so very typical for the relationship we had: I could never get it right.
There was no way to second-guess my mother. It was always damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in one scenario or another.
And that was the thread running through my entire life, for as long as I could remember.
Now, the next question is: “And how did that make you feel?”
And this is what we explore.
“Well, it was confusing!”
“And how did that make you feel?”
And we continue in that vein until we find the feeling underneath all the others.
By the time I was done filling out my Life Chart, I understood that events had taught me one very specific thing – and this isn’t immediately clear from the individual events in and of themselves, it’s what’s underneath them all.
In my case: I cannot express myself without fear of retribution.
I cannot actually be me without feeling I’ll get punished for it.
This, in turn, has translated itself into always flying under the radar.
I never feel free to express myself the way I think is right – because I’m always wrong.
No matter what I do, no matter what I say, no matter what I choose, I always get it wrong…
And when you get it wrong, there’s disappointment, anger, disdain, displeasure.
When you get it wrong, response is never ‘good’. There’s always some kind of punishment involved. And when you’re very sensitive and empathetic, you perceive that punishment even when you’re not supposed to pick up on it.
When you can hear people rolling their eyes even though they have their backs towards you, you receive a lot more punishment than they ever mean to inflict.
On average, by the time we’re seven we are, emotionally speaking, more or less fully shaped: in terms of how we respond, how we interpret, what meaning we assign to the events in our lives.
We receive very clear messages from the people around us about what is and what isn’t acceptable. And the more sensitive and empathetic you are, the deeper the message is ingrained.
By the time you’re seven, you know exactly what you have to do to get what you need in your specific situation. And if that situation isn’t as safe as you need it to be, you know how to adjust to make it as safe as possible. And if that blows up in your face, you try harder the next time.
How you adjusted will probably vary from how I adjusted, but by the time you were seven, you had developed some very specific behaviour – and as long as you stuck to that behaviour, you had some degree of control over what happened. And so you committed to that behaviour. Deliberate at first, on auto-pilot over the years, to the point where you’re no longer even aware of the underlying motivation.
But there’s the thing: if right now, as an adult, you feel you’re stuck, and no matter what you do you can’t seem to truly move forward, understand that – even though you’re no longer that 7-year old girl – you’re still committed to that behaviour.
You’re still committed to keeping that inner child safe by not doing the things she knows will get you into trouble – even though they won’t get you into trouble now. In fact, your wellbeing may very well depend on you doing exactly these ‘forbidden’ things now, but you’re stuck in a double bind, because you’re committed to not doing the things you know you need to do.
On the bright side, even though your inner kid is keeping you committed to those old behaviours, ultimately she wants what’s best for you: to be able to move forward in freedom. And for that, you need to know what you’re actually dealing with.
The Life Chart, the exercise of exploring certain events of your life and translating them into insights about your specific commitments, is what’s going to help you break the double bind.
Looking at the results of your Life Chart is like having the blinders fall away: now you can see your behaviour for what it truly is and adjust course.