“ . . . we must look at the lens through which we see the world, as well as at the world we see . . the lens itself shapes how we interpret the world.”
— Stephen R. Covey, International best-selling author and speaker
When Stephen R. Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People came out in 1989, I called him and asked for an interview for a weekly column I was writing. He had been one of my college professors and kindly agreed to do an interview with me when he came to my home of Portland, Oregon for a seminar he was presenting. He asked for a favor as well, would I be willing to provide him with transportation from the airport to his seminar sight?
It was a timely blessing for me. Not long before this happened I had completed six months of group therapy for victims of childhood sexual abuse. I was still in individual counseling. A daunting question had been floating around in my consciousness, unresolved. I knew him to be a man of deep insight, wisdom, and compassion. As we were driving to the seminar I asked him if he was willing to give me a bit of advice about a personal issue. He agreed.
I explained that I had been surprised to realize the many ways in life that I was falling into victim behavior – an insight gleaned from the therapy I was doing. Even more jarring, was the fact I had been completely unaware of the fact I was doing this. It was such a contradiction to my outward ego self – seemingly confident, assertive, somewhat driven to achieve.
This was my question for Covey: How do we exercise our ability to choose when we are not conscious of some of our behaviors, behaviors driven by significant past events? To me it literally felt like I had been taken hostage by the past, blindfold and all!
Covey’s answer: Even if we are literally being held hostage we always have some choice even if that choice is a slim as a single strand of hair. He took out a page of his planner, the very planner he had designed, and drew a picture of a tall rectangle, short side down. Then he drew one tiny line at the bottom of the rectangle. He labeled the rectangle “choice.” Then he put his pen on top of the tiny line at the bottom of the rectangle and drew one thin line. He explained that this might be all the choice a person has in a given moment, but if one consciously exercises that choice for her betterment, immediately her ability to choose begins to expand, climbing its way up the rectangle. Make any positive choice right where you are at in life and it will empower you to make another.
Later, as I thoughtfully considered Covey’s important insight on choice I considered my dilemma in greater detail. Therapy made me aware, that because of my early victimization, I had a default setting to lapse into moments of victim thinking or acting. I made a list of ways I did that: being intimidated to return a meal in a restaurant that had been improperly cooked; not expressing my true feelings in a difficult conversation; excuse making; avoiding problem solving when I felt helpless. These are just a few everyday examples of a much larger, deeper blind spot and modality of being. Most importantly I began to pull back the veil of my own unconsciousness. Because of the deep shame I had experienced from my abuse, I developed the perception that other people’s feelings were more important than mine and that I was somehow responsible for other’s feelings. In the process, I abandoned myself. Covey taught me that healing required making choices that were difficult and uncomfortable for me and practicing making those hard choices over and over. I could choose to ask for the steak to be cooked until it’s not bleeding! Or say what I am really thinking, or problem-solve instead of making excuses! One difficult choice at a time, a more healthy perception took residence in my consciousness. As it did I was more able to reclaim my power in life in a healthy way.
Many years later when I had become a therapist and was helping others heal from sexual abuse, I ran a group for women, all who had been victims of abuse, who were struggling with sex addiction. When I taught them Covey’s model, every woman in the room felt instantly empowered. They had a place to begin, no matter how small, where they felt some degree of control. They named the model, “The Tower of Choice.” Often these courageous women in the group felt so owned by their addictive behavior and their unhealthy self-images, it felt impossible to stop acting out. Using “The Tower of Choice” model I asked, What can you do? What choice could you make? They had all kinds of ideas now. They could commit to daily reading in the handbook for the group; they could spend some time working on one of The Twelve Steps of Recovery; they could increase their prayer; they could commit to pray even if they had relapsed; they could pick another activity that was engaging and practice choosing that activity versus acting out; they could call someone for help. We filled the white board with choices that felt possible for them. And over the course of 18 months of choosing where they could, miracles happened. One woman left her addictive behavior behind and began speaking to women about this issue – a courageous choice. Another woman also gained months of sobriety and entered into a healthy relationship, later married, and the last time I saw her was excitedly expectant with her first child. These are just two of the stories.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey is transparent in sharing a story of how he and his wife, Sandra, were having difficulty with one of their children. They tried numerous approaches to helping their son, all of which failed. He writes in the book, ”We began to realize that if we wanted to change the situation, we first had to change ourselves. And to change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.” P. 18.
They took the humble and brave action of identifying the ineffective ways their own egos were getting in the way of working effectively with their son. After they had done this, they began making new choices in how they interacted with their son, and only then did they all begin to experience change and success.
Often, when we are immersed in unhealthy habits and behaviors, we are operating from a script we can’t see, a story we are telling ourselves we don’t even notice. We have lost sight of the greater potential for peace, joy, empowerment, and love from which we can be living. To restore vision to our blind spots and to in essence create a life we love requires sacrifice – sacrifice of our comfort zones and of our familiar, but limiting stories. But the definition of sacrifice is giving up something of lesser value, for something of greater value. We can leave the pauper’s mentality to claim our divine birthright which flows from clear perception and expanded choice.
I ran into Stephen R. Covey at a church service in West Yellowstone, Montana, over a dozen years after the life-changing tutorial on choice I had received from him. His book had gone on to sell 25 million copies. Despite the thousands of people he had met, he still remembered me and warmly greeted me. I was able to give him a brief update – how what he had taught me had brought more expansion than I ever could have imagined. One choice at a time I had not only found healing, but I had arrived at a place where I could share what I had experienced in my own life, by becoming a mental health counselor.
I learned of Covey’s death last summer through the media. My encounters with him had been brief, but profound. I took my well-worn copy of The Seven Habits off the shelf, held it close to my heart, shed a few tears, and said a quiet prayer of gratitude for this important spiritual teacher.
In memory of Stephen R. Covey
Oct. 24, 1932 –July 16, 2012