The freedom to choose: in three steps

I’m reading a great book by William Glasser called Choice Theory, in which he encourages us to move beyond the current psychological model of externalizing our value by caring more about the perspective of others—parent, teacher, friend, boss, therapist, etc.—than we do about our own. Glasser believes that relying on others’ opinions for our own self-worth can be greatly unmooring, and that we should learn to listen to our own internal voice instead.

Glasser also compares the mind-boggling degree of technological advancement over the last 100 years (in cars, planes, computers, phones, etc.) with the inversely proportionate lack of advancement in our ability to get along with the people we want to get along with; even as the field of psychology has been busily churning out reams of research on relationships.

After more than 40 years spent studying people, Glasser wants us to be able to derive our worth internally, by choosing what we want to think and feel instead of allowing what or who we are to be defined by others. He suggests that if we stop telling people how to be and focus instead on being who we are, we can dramatically boost our chances of getting what we want out of relationships, rather than feeling trapped and dissatisfied.

Of course, this got me to thinking about my own growth path. The more I learn the difference between my voice and those of other people (voices of my parents, teachers, friends, therapists, history, my generation, social class, social norms, etc.) the more I realize that I have choices over what and how I think and feel. When I can chose when and how I react, I find life so much more pleasant, even in the hard stuff, and I feel more spacious and free.

According to recent science and thousands of years of accumulated practice and knowledge, the body and mind are inseparable, they react in conjunction with each other. If our body registers something, it sends a signal to the brain to react and vice-versa. The message that’s sent depends on our history, which informs the unique way we interpret events and the world. In order to learn to trust our internal voice, we need to work through both the body and mind to understand how we externalize or internalize our choices. Through this process, we can learn how to notice our reactivity and create a space between the stimulus and our response. Victor Frankl, a man who was able to separate stimulus and response under the most gruesome conditions, says that it’s in this space that our power to choose lies…and in the response we choose lies our growth and freedom.

Pulling this all together, I’ve outlined three actionable steps we can all take to help move from externalizing to internalizing our self-worth:

  1. Question your thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself, are they genuine or part of an old habit pattern?  It can take a while to separate what you believe from what others have suggested you believe (think about the image in the mirror or a magazine cover photo). Test the thought or feeling by asking, “Can I say without a doubt that this is true without justifying my reasons or blaming someone else?” If your answer is yes, then you’re off to a good start!
  2. Learn to understand your gut. Michael Gershon calls our gut our second brain. Our body has ways of speaking to us through our sensations that we often pass off as indigestion or shut down by popping a pill or having a drink. If we can tune into these messages and understand the similarities inherent in the resultant experiences (every time a cop pulls out behind me with lights flashing I get butterflies in my belly, every time my boss calls me to his or her office I get butterflies, every time my spouse suggests we talk about finances I get butterflies, and so on), we can apply step number one: Is there a real reason to be scared in this situation or is this a habit pattern of my mind and body?
  3. Have a trusted partner in your inquiry. Be it your spouse, best friend, sibling, coach, therapist, etc., identify someone you can talk to about this stuff who won’t try to tell you how to feel or think, but who can more objectively guide your discovery. Without a trusted external source, it’s hard to differentiate the crap you’re carrying around from your own true voice.

Life moves fast. Choosing to let go of the way others tell us to be and hang onto what we value can make the ride much more satisfying. However, listening to our own internal voice can also bring up a lot of shame if the voice isn’t saying nice things or representing circumstances in a light that helps us grow. Find yourself stuck in the mud of shame and abusing yourself as a result? Invite perspective. Shine a light on the good in you—you are worth it!