If you think of all the things you did on a typical day recently, how many of those were things you didn’t want to do but felt you had to do? Of the things that you wanted to do but didn’t, how many of these were things you felt you couldn’t do? Maybe you woke up earlier than you wanted to, went to a job you didn’t love, ran errands you weren’t happy about and felt pressured to take care of family members.

Maybe you really wanted to sleep in another hour or two, take the day off, go for a walk and a movie and then out to eat. It’s so easy to say, “Yeah, it would be nice to do all that fun stuff, but obviously I can’t because I have to go to work and do all these things.”

We can live our lives, day after day, according to what we believe we have to do and can’t do. If we’re asked why we lived the day that way, we’ll say “I had to, I had no choice, what was I supposed to do?” We are the only ones who set the alarm, stepped out of bed, drove the car, but interestingly our experience is that there was no real choice involved.

What difference does it make?

So what does it matter whether I tell myself that I have to get groceries after work or that I choose to get groceries after work? Does it really make a difference? I think it can make a world of difference. For starters, realizing that it’s a choice means that we recognize that we don’t really have to do it; it’s an option. “I could get groceries tonight, but it’s quite possible that things will be okay if I go tomorrow, or the next day. But it might be better for me, more convenient in the long run, to do it tonight. I think I prefer to go tonight.”

Recognizing the choice allows us to entertain other options. But more important, recognizing the inherent choice can significantly change the way we experience and feel about it. If we fail to appreciate that most of what we do or don’t do is the result of our personal choice, then we’re apt to feel controlled, oppressed, resentful and depressed. We can live with a chronic world view which says, “I can never do the things I want because I have to do all this other stuff.” This may be true for those in prison or other extreme circumstances, but it’s usually not true for most of us.

Mandates makes choice harder, but not impossible

When we do appreciate, embrace and own the choices we make, this can allow us to relax about doing something that we might not love to do, or not doing something that we would love to do. Some employees have what’s called “mandatory overtime.” Mandatory appears to mean there is no choice, it’s not an option. We could choose to not do the overtime and risk losing the job. More likely, we might resentfully do the overtime and feel miserable about it. But it’s also possible to independently and freely choose to do the overtime, not because it’s mandatory, but in spite of it being mandatory. Centering on the choice can be both empowering and calming.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

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