A Life Changing Metaphor

Some of you may know that I’m a therapist.  I specialize in the issues of women, especially those who were abused as children.  Ironically, much of my small practice is with men.  Apparently they like the fact that I’m not easily shocked, that sexual words and descriptions don’t faze me and that I am very direct.

People don’t come to therapy because their lives are peachy.  Rather they show up because something isn’t working.  They don’t want to be labeled sick or deficient, but want a way through the morass and mess so they don’t have to relive it.

As a therapist, I’m always looking for simple stories and illustrations to explain complex ideas.  One of the most difficult concepts to teach is personal responsibility.  When someone is in pain, it is hard to help them understand that many of those problems are the natural result of their choices.

One of the most meaningful metaphors for personal evolution that I’ve encountered is

Portia Nelson, courtesy of Google images

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters, written by Portia Nelson (May 1920 – March 2001) a singer, songwriter, actress and author.

Ms. Nelson survived breast cancer after a mastectomy.  In the early 90’s she faced throat and tongue cancer.  In 2001 she was taken from us, a victim of the cancer that had plagued her life.

Her book There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery“ was reissued in 1993.  Unfortunately it is currently out of stock at Amazon.

I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I do.  It is one of the guiding principles in my life.  I regularly ask myself if I should be ‘taking another sidewalk’.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN FIVE SHORT CHAPTERS
(very slighty modified) by Portia Nelson

I.

I walk, down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost…..I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

II.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault or responsibility
It still takes a long time to get out.

III.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in……………it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my responsibility.
I get out immediately.

IV.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

V.
I walk down another street.

A video version of her poem is also available

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About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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34 Responses to A Life Changing Metaphor

  1. Personal responsiblity. That is one of the hardest concepts for people to not only grasp in their heads but then to truly embraces and embody in its true and most deepest meaning. I remember when it hit me. Fresh into my divorce. Confused. Hurting. I called my mother sobbing. “Mom…OMG…I just realized that I’ve been dating the same freaking guy for the last 20 years…THEY ARE ALL THE SAME GUY!! I did that…I DID THAT…everything about where I am at in my life…it’s on me…it’s been my choices…I created this!!”
    I was devastated. I had purposely chosen and made decisions that made an absolute mess of my life and that accountability suddenly rippled through every decision I had made UP till that point.
    In clarify I felt such shame and guilt. It was on me. Everything was ON ME.
    I grieved. I hurt. I accepted. I healed.
    Because in true personal responsibility and accountabililty comes true empowerment and the realization that now…NOW you can change your stars and step around the deep hole!
    LOVE THIS POST! Wowzers! I will wait and get her book when it’s back in stock!

  2. Amen Natalie, Amen. In accepting that I am responsible for my life – and only me – comes the power to make changes. thanks for your insightful and honest comment. It’s so good to chat with someone who really gets it.

  3. Diane Capri says:

    Louise, this is so right-on. Thanks for sharing this. Personal responsibility is a big theme in my life and in my writing. You’re right that it’s hard to realize what Pogo said so long ago, “We have seen the enemy and he is us!” I believe personal responsibility is liberating. Once we realize we’re in control (not being blown around by the winds of chance), we’re empowered to make changes and to live the dream.

    • Amen, amen, amen. Diane it is the liberation aspect that I love. I used to think that taking responsibility was a burden but I learned with maturity, that take responsibility means freedom. glad you enjoyed.

  4. Dear Louise,

    This is such a powerful and profound post. Portia’s metaphor is one of brilliance that I have loved for quite some time as well. Instead of focusing on failure and mistakes it truly is as simple as “taking another sidewalk” or driving over a speed bump.

    I look forward to reading more of your work. Thank you for the work you do, it is so needed.

    Hugs & love Lee xox

    • Lee, thanks for stopping by and sharing your wisdom. I love this poem — it truly is life changing and continues to serve me well. I’m honored that you’ve shared your time to stop by. Namaste xox

  5. I love that you are out there sharing your wisdom and resources. With our lives we know that it may not be our fault but it still is our responsibility. There is no one coming to save us but many lovely companions to share the journey and light the way. Keep shining yours.

    • Nancy, what a treat to ‘see’ you here. Thanks for stopping by. Personal responsibility is a big thing for both of us. It took many years for me to figure out what were the lies I’d been told and absorbed as mine – beliefs, values and ideas. And then I learned I could choose how to respond, as long as I owned my responsibility for the outcome. I know you’ve learned that lesson as well. It’s an honor to share the journey with you.

      hugs XXOO

  6. A powerful poem, Louise. Why is it that it takes so many tries for us to get it right? I want to sear this poem into my brain so I can recall it next time I’m walking down a sidewalk and I see a familiar looking hole.

    Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    • Sheila, I personally think we all have bits of emotional abuse in our childhood – intentional or not. and because of those remnants, it’s hard for us to ‘walk down another sidewalk’.

      thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. Sandy says:

    Louise,
    I have a niece like the person in your poem. She’s had numerous counselors, and she still doesn’t get it.

    • that must be so hard to watch, Sandy. What I know from seeing people in my practice is that those people who don’t want to get it, won’t get it. but they can always keep saying “I’m trying to change, I am. Look at all the therapists I’ve seen. No one can help me.” It all becomes part of the litany of excuses in the second paragraph. and as a therapist, I send them on their way. It’s too frustrating if someone doesn’t really want to change.

  8. Wow, what powerful words Louise! How many people project their problems on others in order to justify their own actions, not taking any responsibility for things they’ve done. It’s a form of mental illness to me. It’s good to know that we have the ability to change our thinking and actions and move forward to a more positive outcome.

    Thank you Louise for sharing this with us. I really appreciated it. 🙂

  9. Karen, thanks for stopping by. I love this poem. It has been life changing for me – if things feel out of sorts in my life I ask which sidewalk I’m on…the same old same old, or a new one.

    usually that shapes me up right away.

  10. Janice Heck (@janiceheck) says:

    Such an effective poem. I want to use it with some teens in rehab. I think they will get it.
    Thanks for sharing this. I hope Portia Nelson’s book is reissued. I’d like to read it.

  11. You’ve written another powerful post, Louise. I expect to borrow this metaphor many times.

  12. lynnkelleyauthor says:

    That’s an awesome poem. So sad that Portia had to suffer through all that. It takes some guts to own up to personal responsibility, for sure. You have to be a strong person to deal with people’s problems all the time, but it must be very rewarding to see them make progress, thanks to you working with them.

    • Lynn, thanks for your kind words. I love what I do. And this part of it isn’t even my day job…I do something totally different than therapy in that. She seems to have had a very troubled life but her poem is used around the world so it went for a good purpose, at her choice. good to see you again. I hope you’re getting settled.

  13. What a lovey post and tribute to a lovely lady! I work as a famiily-law paralegal and often times ask myself, how do these people get themselves into such awful messes? Can’t they see where they’ve screwed up or what horrible decisions they’re continuing to make? It’s so hard to just sit and watch and keep my big mouth shut, but alas, it is not my place to advise. Fortunately my boss is very astute about knowing who needs to seek professional help and who is just – well – an idiot!

    Thanks for the post, Pat!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  14. There are always going to be things in your life that you can’t change…past, present and future. I have found that it’s how I deal with my past that makes the biggest difference today, and will have the biggest impact on my future. Things happen and if you don’t ‘get it,’ those things can snowball into a lifetime of bad choices and attitudes. You can’t control what others do, or have done, you can only control you…your thoughts, your actions, responses and decisions.

    It would be nice if we could turn back time and change every bad thing that’s ever happened to us, every bad choice we’ve made. But we can’t. The only thing we can do is own up to being on the wrong sidewalk. Other people might bear some responsibility for putting us on that path, but no one forced us to stay there. It’s always been up to us to decide to take a detour.

  15. Such a terrific poem choice. It isn’t the victim’s fault the “hole” is there, but recognizing it and creating a “detour” is key to healing and growth.

    I bet you’re a fantastic therapist, Louise! Your patients are lucky to have you.

  16. I love this poem. When I was a high school English teacher, I always taught it. I taught at a school for pregnant and parenting teens. It always sparked great discussion.

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  19. bjbangs says:

    Very inspiring and interesting.

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