A Very Brief Introduction to Choice Theory

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.”

– Stephen Covey

I studied Choice Theory during my Psychotherapy degree; it was one of the two main models of psychotherapy that we covered. Ever the over worker, I read the book of the same name (highly recommended) by William Glasser the Summer before beginning the course. Although some of it can feel dated sometimes, as it was published in the 60’s, it completely changed my outlook on my life and my world.

Choice theory contends that every part of our behaviour – thoughts, feelings, physiology and ‘doings’ is a choice. Every single part of it. And although feelings and physiology are harder to have any choice over, we do have free choice when it comes to our thoughts and ‘doings’, and these impact on the former two. Glasser argues that we have total agency in the entirety of our ‘total behaviour’, leading to a more responsible, empowered, co-dependency, blame free, life. Glasser’s theory is that nobody can ‘make’ us do or feel anything, as all we do is give or receive information. This information can neither make us do or feel anything. It is our choice how we perceive or filter the information, and it is our choice how we respond to it.

Glasser’s term ‘Quality World‘ refers to all the significant things or people and relationships that are important to us. These are specific things, for example my dog, some of my friends, my house, my garden, my nieces and nephews, my job. All of these things in the Quality World are meeting one of our ‘five basic needs‘ (more on this in a bit) and can usually be replaced, apart from our parents, who are irreplaceable. Glasser calls these things the ‘Quality World pictures’. They satisfy needs but may not be always positive. An abusive partner’s ‘love’ could be in someone’s Quality World, for example, or cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. These things make us feel good. We learn through experience what meets our needs and what doesn’t, so we can replace the pictures or change them as we learn. We have an innate creative tendency that helps to create new possibilities in meeting needs, depending on the circumstance.

Glasser came to the conclusion that all behaviour is driven from the inside, regardless of external influences. We are all in control of our own choices, and every behaviour is a choice. Glasser rejects outside influence, saying that no one else can make anyone do or feel anything. Glasser contends that every behaviour is a choice, even if we may not be fully aware of it. We are all responsible for our own choices, and all behaviour is a choice. This is called ‘internal control’, but most us behave via ‘external control’ – the belief that we are not responsible for our own choices and that states of being happen to us rather than are chosen by us and come from within.

Choice Theory - HeadStuff.org

I am sure you have come across the concept of ‘co-dependency’ or ‘enabling’ behaviours. These behaviours seem to come about when we are overly involved in someone else’s internal process, or are not too aware of our own. Choice Theory is the exact opposite of this. It is taking complete responsibility of our own processes, and giving total freedom to others for theirs. With this theory, all problems relate to a relationship problem in some way, and all problems are in the present, even if you think something in the past caused them.

Conflict arises when a person tries to make another person do what is in their Quality World. We can go along with someone else’s Quality World but we are then being incongruent and may ‘depress’. This is what Glasser calls ‘external control’, as opposed to ‘internal control’. Glasser’s ‘seven deadly habits’ of external control are nagging, bribing, blaming, complaining, punishing, threatening and criticising. If we go along with someone else’s Quality world we are not granting them or us freedom, and we are behaving co-dependently. Most of us operate in an ‘external control’ way, because we believe that we can exert some sort of control over other people. The reality is that we cannot do that without the other person’s permission.

Choice Theory understands that humans have five basic needs – freedom, power, fun, love and belonging & security. Our needs may vary but they remain the same throughout our lives, although our behaviour – our attempts to meet the needs – may change. For example, I was born with a low fun need (maybe a 2/5), a high love and belonging need (a 5/5) and a relatively high power need (maybe a 4/5) – try rating them out of five for yourself. These are constant for life, but how we meet these needs changes, obviously – as how you behave as an adult is not going to necessarily reflect how you behaved as a child or teenager. The other thing to note is that needs can overlap. For example, a teenager starting to smoke might be meeting a ‘love and belonging’ need – validation from the group – and maybe also meeting her power need – rebelling against parents, taking agency over her own body and choices etc. Glasser’s theory is that how we behave is always our best attempt to meet our needs, and therefore all behaviour is purposeful. Basically, everything we do has as good reason, even if we’re not aware of it ourselves. The need is not the thing to be changed, as it is fixed, but where we can make choices is over how we meet that need.

If all that sounds a little too academic and difficult to get your head around, here are the ‘ten axioms of Choice Theory’ that might help break it down a little easier:

  1. The only person whose behaviour we can control is our own.
  2. All we can give another person is information.
  3. All long-lasting psychological problems are relationship problems.
  4. The problem relationship is always part of our present life.
  5. What happened in the past has everything to do with what we are today, but we can only satisfy our basic needs right now and plan to continue satisfying them in the future.
  6. We can only satisfy our needs by satisfying the pictures in our Quality World.
  7. All we do is behave.
  8. All behaviour is Total Behaviour and is made up of four components: acting, thinking, feeling and physiology.
  9. All Total Behaviour is chosen, but we only have direct control over the acting and thinking components. We can only control our feeling and physiology indirectly through how we choose to act and think.
  10. All Total Behaviour is designated by verbs and named by the part that is the most recognisable. (depressing, angering, aggressing, etc)

If you are interested in knowing more about the concepts of Choice Theory, I would really recommend reading the book by William Glasser and seeing if it opens up any new perspectives or if the world looks any different to you afterwards.

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