About thirty years ago, my boss told me I was too “other-directed.”  It was a novel concept for me. I recognized that I was pretty sensitive to other people’s opinions, but I’d never thought of that as a negative, except that it cost me some occasional discomfort.  At some deeper level, I must have been aware of a kernel of truth in his comment, since this little anecdote stuck with me. 

Over the decades, that kernel grew into self-awareness. Sometimes it can be hard to look in the mirror, but that’s how we grow.  I came to realize, first hand, that someone who is excessively other-directed spends too much time and energy in reactive mode, responding to other people and events rather than making them happen.  Their response is likely to be excessively colored by what others expect or by telling others what they want to hear.  In the extreme, the other-directed person is directed by external circumstances and other people’s values, rather than by his or her own priorities.  They bring nothing to the table.

It’s easy to confuse other-direction with a life of compassionate service.  People with poor boundaries, co-dependence or other tendencies to excessive caretaking may indulge in this confusion as a form of self-validation.  That doesn’t prevent them from feeling exploited or resentful.  They differ in an important way from those who consciously and compassionately devote themselves to a life of service — Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day come to mind.  Saints like these had a solid inner core of values — they knew what they were committed to and their response to others’ needs was based on their beliefs.  Such commitment doesn’t have to be grounded in religion or belief in God — for example, Nelson Mandela was a hero whose strength lay in political and humanitarian ideals.

These role models all possessed strength of character, the alternative to other-direction.  A person with genuine strength of character has solid personal values, and relies upon them to guide their feelings and actions. Other people’s opinions are far less important.  This internal grounding allows each of us to offer the best of him or herself.  Ironically perhaps, by grounding my decisions in myself, I believe I am far more useful to others than with the other-directed alternative.

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