Reality Check: The Reaction Rut

If you’ve ever stubbed your toe, then you’re familiar with quick physical reactions. “Ouch!” (or other words) are almost instant responses to pain; no thought required.

Physical pain isn’t the only type of pain though, is it?

In choice theory, Dr. Glasser uses the image of a scale (a teeter-totter) to help explain how we behave. One side holds our internal sense of what we want (he calls that our quality world.) The other side holds our perception of what’s happening.

When we perceive that what we have pretty much matches what we want, the teeter-totter is balanced. We feel satisfied.

However, when we perceive an event as “not what we want;” our teeter totter gets out of balance and we feel a quick jolt of pain. Then what?

Sisters Polly and Paula are headed to the family picnic, each with their delicious seafood chowder. They fill their pots to the brim and place them in their vehicles.

On the way, in a remarkable coincidence (found only in columns) both Paula and Polly needed to stop suddenly. The pots tipped, the chowder spilled; it’s a mess.

Instantly, both Paula and Polly feel that jolt of pain. What now?

Polly carefully turns around and heads back home. She cleans out the vehicle and sees that the spill isn’t as bad as it had first appeared. She salvages the chowder that didn’t spill, fastens the pot more securely, and heads back. She’s a little late, there’s less chowder than planned, but she has a good laugh telling the story and a good time with her family.

When Paula’s chowder spills, she’s furious. “Why does this always happen to me?” She stomps on the gas, the pot tips backward and sends the rest of the chowder flying. All the way home, she fumes about this and every other unpleasant event that she’s ever experienced. She throws the pot in the trash, tosses her best towels over the mess, stops at the store and overpays for a platter of stale party snacks. Now she’s mad, broke, and that chowder smell in the car isn’t getting more appetizing!

When Paula gets to the party, all she talks about is how bad things always happen to her. Her friends commiserate, but the conversation isn’t fun for anyone.

Given that Paula and Polly have similar lives and both had the same negative event, what’s the difference?

Polly chooses to view unpleasant incidents as isolated events in a fundamentally satisfying life. She concentrates on the positives in her life and works on what she can control. She sees herself as resilient and life events as manageable.

Paula, on the other hand, chooses to view any unpleasant incident as evidence of never-ending negatives—one bad thing after another. In response to even the tiniest event, she dives back into a familiar rut; rehashing past negative events and continuously adding new ones to the collection.

Does it help Paula to connect all those bad events that have happened over the years, with different people and under different circumstances? Or does it harm her? What do you think?

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