A well known psychologist, the late Dr. William Glasser, thinks we’re dealing with human relationship problems the wrong way. His book, Choice Theory, gives us an alternative on how to improve the way we interact with one another to produce a happier life.
Choice Theory is a rather extreme concept, and it’s not without its share of critics. I will focus on the parts of the theory that work for me.
In short, it proposes that everything we do and everything we experience – how we behave, how we feel, how we react – is a choice. We think our spouse made us angry? No. We chose to be angry. We think someone else annoys us because they’re speaking too slow? Think again. We choose to be annoyed. You’re feeling down, frustrated, sad because of someone else’s actions? That’s just you allowing a third party’s actions affect you. In short, we have a choice as to how we respond to external factors. We feel or react in specific ways simply because we chose so.
Such a theory is counterintuitive to human nature – most of us are conditioned to place blame on another person and naturally think our emotions are due to someone else’s shortcomings. “My boyfriend makes me anxious because he’s always late”; “My daughter’s rebelliousness causes me stress”; “My teacher is a bore and therefore I hate learning”. These are samples of what goes on in our minds, or things we say, when things don’t go our way. The blame is immediately placed on the other person for creating our feelings. Such is not the way to go about it, Dr. Glasser proposes. Rather, we should take responsibility over our own feelings, accept that we cannot control the behaviour of another person, and understand that the only person we can control is ourselves. We can tweak our behaviour to create a more favourable outcome, or manage our emotions so that we are not as negatively impacted by external factors. The bottom line is, we cannot control, or change, another person’s behaviour.*
Dr. Glasser thinks that if we accept this basic concept, a lot of the world’s problems would vanish. Countries fight, managers/subordinates fight, spouses fight, families fight – precisely because they’re trying to control someone they can’t. Frustration, resentment, hate – stem from the desire to control someone or make him/her behave in a way that suits our worldview. When that doesn’t go as planned, we prime ourselves for negative emotions. It happens on the micro, person to person scale, and equally on a macro scale between nations.
The concept of being only able to control our own emotions and behaviours, and not that of another, is an eloquent one. I do believe that once we take ownership of our emotions and accept that it is us who are in control our our feelings, we mature as a person. The traffic jam isn’t causing my stress. My husband isn’t the one creating my unhappiness. My boss isn’t the one imprisoning me in my office. WE are the ones deciding to feel that way. Also, when we stop trying to control the behaviour of another person, we free ourselves from the frustration when the person doesn’t behave to our liking.
One of the limitations of this theory is that it doesn’t apply to all situations. What about parents and children? Should children be allowed to do whatever they wish since according to Choice Theory, one person (the parent) cannot control another person’s (the child’s) behaviour? That I think is where Choice Theory doesn’t apply – children need guidance from their parents to distinguish right from wrong, and sometimes this includes using an array of methods to guide the child’s behaviour. Another criticism of Choice Theory tends to focus on Dr. Glasser’s disagreement with using medication to treat psychological disorders. In his view, psychological disorders are merely a person’s way of expressing his/her unhappiness in the extreme. I could see how this upsets a lot of people who rely on medication to manage their psychological illnesses.
It’s not a perfect theory, but one which should be more widely taught in order to empower people to take responsibility for their own emotions, and cease blaming others or general situations for creating their own misery. When applied in moderation, Choice Theory should indeed be able to improve our relationships with one another.
*Disclaimer: this theory doesn’t work for extreme examples, e.g. physical violence, human trafficking, violation of personal safety, spousal abuse, intentional physical provocation etc. – cases where the law is involved. My interpretation is that Dr. Glasser’s theory works for everyday interactions; those that can be tweaked in order to make relationships smoother and stronger. The person in question has to have a certain degree of personal freedom to make his/her own choices. Children are not always in this category, especially if they rely on their parents to survive, although I do believe they can be taught at an early age that they are responsible for their own emotions.