You DO Have Options!

Throughout our lives we are called upon to make countless decisions. In some cases we have seemingly few choices; in others, like when we’re dining at a national chain restaurant, the menu seems almost endless.

The freedom to choose from a variety of options is one of the great blessings in life. Options help us feel optimistic and hopeful. On the contrary, people who don’t believe they have options are more likely to feel badly about themselves and their lives. They feel trapped, stuck, powerless.

Carl, who has a high school education, is a hard worker and a good family man. He has been employed at Company “X” for fifteen years. He likes his job and makes a good living. Carl has counted on his employer, a nationally known company, to provide him a living as long as he needs. And so he has dutifully done his job, year after year, never considering that he could or should try to do anything else; never thinking of continuing to be educated or trained to do something that would allow him just a little more independence.

Jack’s situation is like Carl’s; he’s working for Company “Y”, doing well and taking care of his family. But somewhere along the way, he decides he’d like to do something else, too. So, Jack seeks out the training he needs, starts a little side business doing something he enjoys and makes some extra money. Plus, he thinks, if things go badly at Company “Y”, he has a back-up plan.

In the event of a job crisis, it’s easy to see which one of these men would fare better.

Just the other day during a therapy session one of my clients – who is in a difficult marriage  – said with obvious frustration, “I have no options”. This has become her reality, because she believes it strongly. Convinced that she has no options, she is unable to take action to improve her life.

Maybe her problem is that if she were to make a tough decision regarding the marriage, the cost would be too high. Maybe she believes it’s too late in life for her to start over. Maybe she is afraid; afraid of change, afraid of … ?

When we are stressed, feeling threatened, we have a hard time believing we have options. The biological stress response clouds our reasoning. But we will think clearly and make effective decisions when we relieve the mental and emotional stress.

The obstacles we face may be physical, financial or psychological. We may not have the freedom to do as we please at a given moment. Regardless of the stressors contained in our situation, we can always choose our mental response, once we have learned to head off the impulsive emotional reaction.

Nelson Mandela, unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years in South Africa, never gave up hope. Ultimately he was released, and the way he behaved after  his release showed that he had kept his sanity and his emotions in check. He said he harbored neither anger nor bitterness toward his jailers. Not long after, he became President of South Africa. His story is proof that it is possible to choose one’s response even in the most hopeless of situations.

After World War II, the great psychiatrist, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, wrote a book, titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl is considered one of the 20th Century’s most important psychiatrists and thinkers. In this wonderful little book, he identifies the personality traits that helped some people survive the Holocaust, while others perished. One of those qualities was the ability to imagine a bright future, a future filled with the desire to do something good, something that has meaning and gives value to the world.

You might be thinking that it’s not easy to stay positive, especially when we’re surrounded by so much negative energy. Well, that may be true. If were easy, would you be reading this?