That’s Men: It’s all about the choices we choose to make
At a crowded event in Trinity College Dublin some years ago the speaker, a US psychiatrist called William Glasser, paused after struggling to remember a name. “Forgive me,” he said with a grin. “I have early-stage Alzheimer’s.”
The audience laughed. Glasser, who had developed Reality Therapy nearly half a century earlier, had already put them in a good humour. None realised that Glasser was laughing at himself – he really was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
It was typical of Glasser, that he kept going, kept making choices, as he might have put it, and was even able to make people laugh at his predicament.
Reality Therapy (now more commonly known as Choice Theory), which he had been promoting since the 1960s, holds that we keep making choices because our motivations come from inside us and not from the outside.
You don’t stop at red traffic lights because the lights are red. You choose to stop because you want to stay alive or uninjured or to keep the gardaí, and their penalty points, out of your hair. Your annoying spouse doesn’t make you slam the door and walk out; that’s a choice you make among the many other choices available: walking out without slamming the door, talking, shouting, going silently about your business, hugging the spouse and so on.
Getting what we want
We make choices to get what we want. Look around you. Everyone you see is acting right now to get something they want. That bickering retired couple want to express their need for power; before they retired they met this need through work but now they have only each other to practice on.
Those guys slagging each other off in the canteen want to belong; the women in the hen party want to have fun; the man walking along the canal on his own wants a little freedom; the woman going to a job she hates chooses to do this to earn the money to pay a mortgage because she wants a place of her own.
The Institute of Guidance Counsellors began to bring Glasser to Ireland in the mid-1980s and thousands of people, including myself, have learned Choice Theory since that time.
That’s a good development in a country in which playing the victim is a national sport. Profession after profession portrays its members as under-appreciated, underpaid victims; many groups in society see themselves as victims; mortgage payers are victims; banks are victims (think of the whining about “strategic defaulters” who make choices about which bills to pay with what little they’ve got); tenants are victims; landlords are victims.
Making new choices
Glasser’s theory says we all make choices – some intelligent, some stupid, some lucky, some unlucky. What we need to do now is to make new choices to move us from where we are towards where we want to be.
Harsh? Not really. The concept of choice is empowering. The man or woman bullied by a spouse; the worker mistreated by an employer; the person facing an unwanted retirement; all begin to see possibilities as soon as they accept that they have choices: scary, uncertain, unsatisfactory choices maybe but choices nonetheless.
Except in extreme situations (a gun to the head, an attack with overwhelming force), we always have some sort of choice, even if the choice is to wait and see what happens.
A key aspect of Glasser’s theory is that the only person I can control is myself. I can threaten you, cajole you, bully you, entice you but, ultimately, I cannot control you. Control freaks often learn this the hard way and wander around shocked at the loss of a control they never had. Unfortunately, they also cause a great deal of damage before they learn their lesson.
Put these two concepts together, that we live by choices and that the only person I can control is myself, and you have a powerful working theory to apply to the circumstances of your life.
Dr Glasser died the week before last.
Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind - Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.