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Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom


I read and reviewed Schools without Failure where I was introduced to Dr. Galsser’s work on Reality Therapy and the subject of this book review Choice Theory. Fundamental to Choice theory is that we all make choices that we’re not victims and we have the ability to make choices. You’ve seen my frustration with victimhood and helplessness in some of my other book reviews (See BoundariesBeyond BoundariesDaring Greatly, and Change or Die.). Here Dr. Glasser spends an entire book talking about how we make choices and that we’re not as helpless as we sometimes like to believe we are.

They Made Me Mad

Most children, when asked about why they hit Johnny, will happily explain that they did it because Johnny made them mad. We hear this “they made me angry” all the time in business, at homes and in politics – except in politics it’s cloaked a bit more. The problem with this is that this isn’t true. Someone else took an action but we made the choice to feel how we felt about it. Feelings are our value judgment about what we’ve seen. Consider Chris Argyris Ladder of Inference:

What happened isn’t “fact” as much as we’d like to believe that. The reality is that we select our perception from reality and apply our values and beliefs to it. For more on our confirmation bias see Thinking, Fast and SlowSources of PowerBeyond BoundariesChange or Die, and Who Am I?.

The reality is that we have the ability to manage our emotions. While we can’t head off the amygdala in triggering an immediate response to something – but we don’t have to linger there and we don’t have to take an action based on our feelings. We have a choice as to how we move up the ladder and the pauses that we put in place before we jump up the next rung.

Quality World

Dr. Glasser believes that we have our own inner world which contains the things which are important to us. It’s this world that we operate from. We view the real world from inside of this quality world. It’s like the window that we use to view the real world.

We get angry because people in the real world don’t match our expectations of them from the versions of them that we have in our quality world. This aligns with the idea that the Buddhists have that anger is simply disappointment directed. (For more on anger being disappointment directed see Emotional Intelligence or Destructive Emotions.) We’re disappointed because reality isn’t matching the view that we have in our quality world.

Dr. Glasser believes that we have two views of ourselves in our quality world – one which is the slightly idealized version – and one which is an extremely idealized picture. We all have a slightly idealized view of ourselves. This is true whether it’s the research with high school seniors where 70% thought they had above-average leadership capabilities. (Statistically speaking at least 20% have to be wrong.) This idealized view of ourselves may be something like the must-be-seen-as box (See Anatomy of Peace) or it can be something less dangerous.

Humility is hard to get to as my research on humility indicated (See Humilitas). In fact, my favorite definition of humility side steps the idealized view all together. It is “power held in service to others.” Perhaps I like it so much because it sidesteps my own inaccurate picture of myself.

The other benefit of that view is that it’s fundamentally a view of humility based on connecting with others. To serve others you have to connect with them. As we saw in Change or Die having meaningful connections with other human beings is critical to our health. Dr. Glasser shares that one of the central tensions with our world is the need to have other people in our quality worlds and the realization that we have to at least get along with them – and ideally be in relationship with them.

External Control

The competing view of choice is that we’re able to control others – and that we’re being controlled. The problem with the idea is that you can control others is that you then have to accept that you’re being controlled. Control is a two way street and most of the traffic is oncoming traffic. The problem is that we all want to control and no one wants to be controlled.

One of the interesting exceptions to our natural tendency towards external control – or trying to control others is that we don’t try to control our best friends. We accept them for who they are. Acceptance is, as How to Be an Adult in Relationships says, one of the five keys to getting along with and being in relationships with others.

Dr. Glasser believes that much of the suffering that we experience is due to external control – and that it’s the major incorrect path that much of psychotherapy goes down.

Choice Theory in Marriage

I’ve done more than a bit of research on the relationship of marriage. Dr. John Gottman’s work including the Science of Trust is definitely the gold standard for marriage guidance. However, Dr. Glasser adds some salient points. He speaks about how to focus thinking on what we can do and the choices that we can make rather than being focused on how others behave.

The reality – exposed in Choice Theory – is that we only really have control of ourselves. We can’t make our partner meet our needs. We can’t make others care or love us. We can only accept the love they offer.

Dr. Glasser speaks about the tragedy of divorce but also in the tragedy of people who are trapped in loveless marriages. He even shares his experience of childhood where he saw how his mother controlled his father. So while divorce is a tragedy one member of a marriage trying to control another can be equally harmful to each other and to children.

Your Past Isn’t Your Problem

Where Dr. Glasser had the greatest struggles with his peers was the idea that the past isn’t your problem. It’s certainly true that you can’t change your past and that your past isn’t directly and literally your problem today. Whereas traditional psychotherapy focuses on reviewing your past to find problems Dr. Glasser was more focused on people making choices today.

I believe that the reason that this was such a disagreement is that both are right and both are wrong. At some level the past is truly the past. It can’t directly harm you today. However, as anyone who has had a wound of any kind will tell you that when people touch the wounds they hurt. So in the present you’re feeling an echo left behind by the past hurt that you felt – if you don’t make an effort to heal it. If you fail to fully address an old wound and instead cover it – the wound never heals and every time that a person reminds you of that wound it will hurt again. So the past isn’t your problem – the wounds from your past are.

Learning how to recognize where your wounds are and how to not react instinctively to protect them and instead work through them so that the wounds heal – if not completely at least mostly.

Choosing to Depress

One of the most prevalent reasons that individuals seek counseling is for depression. Even Marvin, the Robot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, thought he was depressed saying “I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed.” He continues “And then, of course, I’ve got this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.” So many humans wish that depression is something that some doctor can just fix. Poor Marvin can’t help that his diodes hurt. It will be great if someone will just replace the diodes and allow him to live a happy life.

When dealing with folks who are attempting suicide there are markers that experts look for. They look to see if they took their shoes off, if they told anyone, or if they chose to make an attempt in a way that they would most likely be discovered. Depending upon these factors – and others – a trained professional can make a judgment call as to whether the person attempting suicide is really making a call for help or if they are indeed intending to end their life. This is, of course, the ultimate in depression. You believe that your life isn’t just bad now but that it’s never going to get better. (See Mindset for a more optimistic view.)

The reason that I mention this is because it’s not just those who are attempting suicide that are crying for help. Glasser asserts that depression is a way to ask for help – without begging. It seems like depression is a more dignified way of asking for help without having to resort to begging.

Our suffering, surfaced through our outcries legitimizes our calls for help. If we’re in pain at the hands of another person – or simply life circumstances – then it’s more OK to ask for help. Most of us were taught self-reliance and the need to be self-sufficient and independent. There is some shame associated with needing someone else’s help – that depression minimizes. (See Daring Greatly for more on shame and guilt.)

So when you’re depressed perhaps you can ask what you’re looking for help with.

Indirectly Choosing to Feel Better

You can’t choose to feel better – or can you? Obviously it’s hard to say to yourself “I’m going to be happy now.” That seems ridiculous on its face. However, because of the relationship between what we’re doing and how we think we can indirectly change how we feel.

We forget that our bodies and our brains evolved in tandem. We were “born” on the plains in Africa and had a much more physical exertion than we have now. So being active was literally the way we thought best. (See Brain Rules for more.) So even a moderate amount of physical activity – like walking – can help our brains think best.

Of course, it’s not all about thinking. It’s about how we feel. We can’t directly feel a certain way – but what we can do is perform activities that lead us to the feeling that we desire. If we love playing video games, pinball, volleyball, soccer, etc., then doing this can help us feel better. The more that we do the activities we enjoy the more likely we are to feel better. So instead of choosing to feel better we can choose to do things that make (help) us feel better.

One word of caution is that leaning on this too much creates an addiction whether the thing that we like to do is shopping, eating, or even work. We have to self-soothe but not so much that we’re becoming a slave to the self-soothing that we choose.

One final trick to feeling better is to change your framing. If you can look at the glass as being half full instead of half empty – you’ll be able to live in the hope that there’s something better coming and knowing that it will be getting better makes it better in and of itself. (See more about this in my review of The Heart and Soul of Change)

A final recommendation is to make a specific attempt to get more connected with another human being. As mentioned in Bowling Alone and Change or Die – the more connected you are to others the happier you’ll be.

Treating the Symptoms and Not the Cause

“Brain drugs” as Dr. Glasser calls them, treat they symptom not the cause. They deal with the depression but not why you’re depressed. (Or in Dr. Glasser’s language they treat the depressing but not why you chose to depress.) As was mentioned in The Heart and Soul of Change pharmacological therapy (drugs) are as effective as psychotherapy with the difference being that psychotherapy maintains its effectiveness where drugs lose their effectiveness when they’re discontinued.

With Choice Theory – or any psychotherapy – the impacts are long lasting. As people begin to realize that they always have choices and that they have control of themselves – and no one else – there is a greater sense of peace and an opportunity to get to the root of their troubles.

We love in a quick-fix society that always wants to solve problems by taking a pill or getting some solution from someone else. Sometimes you have to work at the challenges that are causing you to be unhappy – rather than just trying to cover them up.

The Role of Servant Leadership

Dr. Glasser often speaks of education. He’s got a passion for helping education be better. One of his stories speaks about how the principal’s job is to support the teachers and the students. This hit me squarely as another example of servant leadership. The manager isn’t there to manage as much as they are there to lead. Leading is one part picking the direction and one part getting the barriers out of the way of the folks that want to get you there.

We saw servant leadership in Heroic Leadership where the Jesuits showed how they wanted life to be like by living it out. They helped, supported, encouraged, and ultimately lead the people they were with by the character of their hearts and their desire to support others.

Choose to Read It

Like anything in choice theory, I can’t make you read the book. However, I can say that if you’re stuck in a rut thinking about all the people that aren’t doing what you want them to do – or you feel like you’re not able to do what you want because you don’t have a choice, maybe Choice Theory is worth a read.