People in movies say this all the time; it’s the basis of most plots. The protagonist has to go to Columbia, or kill someone, or rob a bank, because if they don’t Something Dreadful will happen. They have no choice, and therefore they should be immune to the consequences of their actions whether that’s going to prison or being shot by a drug cartel. Because of the way the psychology of protagonists works, the viewers – us – want them to ‘get away with’ whatever they’ve done because they were helpless victims. And they usually do, because the directors want us to like their movie and make them a lot of money by going to see it. So we learn that when the world works properly, we can excuse just about anything by saying we had no choice. It's even been tried in court - the old 'I was only obeying orders' defence. (It doesn't work).
Actually this is nonsense. You always have a choice. In any situation. You may not be prepared to take the consequences of those choices, and therefore you may feel there’s only one acceptable option; some would argue that means there is no choice. But just because you're only prepared to consider one option doesn't mean there aren't others. Different people will consider different things unacceptable. Sometimes all the choices are shitty and you don't want to take any of them, but you still have to.
When I worked in HR, we had a snowy winter and I got a long abusive email from someone saying that I should give them time off without their having to use any holiday time because they couldn’t get to work in the snow. They’d had no choice but to take the day off. But that wasn’t true. They had options; they could have walked to work, or dug a path through the snow to the main road which was clear. They’re not good options, and not ones I would have wanted to take myself; but they were there. Equally they could have chosen to live nearer work, or on a main road instead of at the end of a narrow unmade track, or to buy a 4x4 so they could get out of their isolated rural property in bad weather. So what they actually were saying was that they wanted the company to bear the consequences of their choices instead of bearing them themselves by using a holiday day. Note that this was a healthy, able-bodied person and I wasn’t saying they should have come to work; just that they should take the consequences of choosing not to.
Sometimes 'I had no choice' is a disguise for 'I didn't want to'. Or 'I didn't want to choose, it was too hard'. Sometimes that's true. 'I didn't want to' is a perfectly valid reason for not doing something. Just don't try to pretend - to me or to yourself - that you were forced into it. There are enough people in the world who will lie to you without adding yourself to their number.
The other side of ‘I had no choice’ is a victim mentality. Poor me, this happened and there was nothing I could do about it. Now sometimes that’s true – shit happens. As in poker, some people get dealt a good hand and some people don’t. But as soon as you realise that you have responsibility for what happens to you, you stop thinking like a victim.
It's important to note here that ‘responsibility’ is not the same as ‘blame’. You’re not to blame for what happens to you, but you are responsible for what you do about it. You have choices. People walk to the North Pole on prosthetic limbs and learn to paint with their toes because they have no arms. These people have a sense of purpose and achievement. Whereas if you spend your time feeling sorry for yourself because you haven’t got a great job, you will be sad – and, ironically, therefore less likely to get a great job.
It’s a psychological fact that if you feel powerless you will be more prone to depression and anxiety than if you don’t. If you behave as if you have choices, even if in reality you only have one acceptable option, you feel more in control of your life and therefore emotionally more robust. You know this. Consider a real problem you have now. If you think ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’ how do you feel? If you then think ‘what am I going to do about it?’ do you feel differently? If you decide what you're going to do about it, or even identify some options, do you feel better?
Choices reach into every aspect of our lives. When something happens or someone says something negative about you on Facebook, you have a choice. You can allow that negativity to destroy your confidence and prevent you ever leaving the house again, or you can objectively consider it and decide whether you want to allow it to influence you in future. Did you screw up? Did you say something tactless or inadvertently ignorant? If so, you can choose to apologise and learn from the mistake. If not, you can choose to ignore the feedback. Feedback is a gift, and while we cherish some gifts there are others we unhesitatingly return for store credit.
I didn’t say making those choices would always be easy, but the reward is a happier, more fulfilling and more successful life. Yes, more successful. Because people who view events as something to which they can make a deliberate response tend to do better than those who see them as obstacles sent to render them helpless. So next time you’re tempted to say ‘they made me feel like that’ or ‘I had no choice but to…’ stop and challenge yourself. Having choices doesn’t mean you have to respond differently, but it does mean you might decide it’s a better option.
And if you need some help doing that, you can always get in touch with me. If you have enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend.
Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at email@example.com or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.