A man was riding horseback through the countryside. It was obvious to the locals that he was not from those parts, so an old farmer asked, “Young man, where are you headed?” The rider simply shrugged nervously and said, “I’m not sure; you’ll have to ask the horse.”

When I first heard this story, it occurred to me that this scene descibes how life unfolds for many who struggle with emotional duress. Circumstances carry them along and they are not really certain where they might lead. Contrary to the presumption that these people are aimless or clueless, however, these individuals can otherwise be decisive and self-assured.

Let me illustrate how this might work.

Let’s suppose that a mother, Janet, addresses her son about routine chores that have to be done, but the son wants nothing to do with her requests. He argues and speaks in a curt fashion. Almost lightning-like, Janet responds abruptly, telling the son that she won’t tolerate his disrespect. Again, he reacts poorly and demonstrates a sour disposition as the conversation between son and mother tumbles quickly downhill. Her tone of voice remains shrill as she allows herself to be pulled into a power struggle that brings out the worst in her. They argue briefly and she remains in a foul mood for quite some time afterward.

At the same time her husband, James, is putting together a major project at the office, struggling because a key coworker will not complete his work in a timely fashion. James begins fretting and obsessing about the need for better coordination, but the coworker will hear none of his suggestions. Instead the coworker blames James for his poor production. As James’ frustration gets the best of him, his agitation runs wild. He begins cursing behind the coworker’s back and belittles others in the office who have nothing to do with this unfortunate situation.

Janet and James each lost their way as they allowed their personal course to be set by someone outside themselves. If asked during their sane moments, each would affirm that they do not believe in disrespectful or agitated behavior. Each would acknowledge that while it is normal to feel frustration, that emotion does not have to be central to their well-being. They would each acknowledge that goodness and patience are preferred in the midst of trying circumstances.

Every one of us can have moments of tension when the world around us is less than agreeable. What distinguishes the healthy person from the unhealthy is the ability to steer a proactive path toward behaviors and attitudes that reflect personal stability. For instance, when that teenager is argumentative, rather than riding the youth’s foul mood, you can determine to have calm firmness. As that coworker displays poor work habits you can address it while maintaining a tone of respect.

Within each personality is the ingredient of dependency, the tendency to allow moods and attitudes to be driven by outer circumstances. That dependency does not have to be so overpowering that it hinders us from rational, productive behavior. While mood swings are a natural byproduct of dependency, we can keep them from going to extremes as we are committed to quality personal ingredients, even when others do not share the same commitment.

No person will mount a horse with no clue about where he or she will eventually ride. While some may want to remain flexible enough to make spontaneous detours, they will remind the horse that the rider is the one who gets to decide the final destination. Likewise, in life, each person can determine how he or she will navigate through the challenges inherent in any relationship. With no forethought, individuals are doomed to having their paths established by those who may not have their best interests at heart. With planning, however, it is possible to steer clear of behaviors and expressions that are.