How do you choose behaviour, anyway?

You have to do this! You gotta do that! Does it feel like people are always making you do things? Do you find yourself doing things you don’t want to do because that’s the way it has to be? Do you see yourself behaving in ways you don’t like to be behaving, because that’s what a person should do? Where is your choice in all of this?

Dr. William Glasser, the developer of Reality Therapy, uses the example of a ringing phone to illustrate how people perceive that they are controlled externally, whether it’s by other people or by external signals.

“Why do we answer a phone?” he asks. “Because it’s ringing, of course!” we answer. Now let’s ask the question in a different way: “Is the phone making you answer it?” No. Then why do we answer a ringing phone? Because we have taken in a piece of external information (the phone is ringing) and we make a decision. “What do I want to do right now?” “What’s my best choice of behaviour?” Often, the choice we make is to answer the phone. However, if the phone were to start ringing while the house is on fire, we would likely make a different choice!

So why does it matter—this question of what we do when the phone rings? Whether we believe that we make a choice when the phone rings is not going to make a huge difference in our lives. However, we make many choices: Will I live in the city or the country?  Will I go to work today or will I call in sick? Will I yell at my dog/spouse/child or will I hug instead? These choices, and others, have a big impact on our lives. So the larger question is: “Are the decisions we make externally controlled (caused by something external to us) or are they internally controlled (coming from our own choices)?

The theoretical underpinning of Reality Therapy is Choice Theory, which offers the fundamental idea that we choose our behaviour. We may be making great choices: leading happy, productive lives filled with good relationships and satisfying our needs. Or, we may be making less effective choices, where things are not working so well. The reason for the underlying optimism that’s inherent in Choice Theory is this: we are responsible for making our choices. If those choices aren’t working so well, then we are capable of choosing something better.

Why would people choose behaviours that don’t work well if something else would work better? According to Dr. Glasser, we are always trying to choose to behave in a way that gives us the most effective control over our lives. We may not always recognize that we can make a different choice, one that would be more effective. Here’s where Reality Therapy can be helpful.

For example, consider the scenario of a young woman named Lacey who has come to a coach because she is suffering from anxiety. Her anxiety has become particularly troublesome since she became a student in a training program.

Dr. Glasser (or a Reality Therapy-trained coach) might rephrase Lacey’s situation to say, “Lacey is anxietying,” emphasizing the element of personal choice and control. By replacing the passive “suffering from anxiety” with the active “anxietying,” we are introducing the idea that Lacey can do something other than suffer. This is consistent with Choice Theory; Lacey can choose to do something differently.

However, a Reality Therapy coach is unlikely to tell Lacey that she should merely choose to stop feeling anxious! For one thing, that would be an example of one person (the coach) trying to externally control another (Lacey). External control, even when done with the best intentions, flies in the face of Choice Theory. Further, anyone who has ever experienced anxietying (or depressing, or angering, or any of many other painful human behaviours) knows that saying “I choose not to feel that painful feeling” doesn’t tend to do much.

So, what is there to do? A Reality Therapy approach could include asking Lacey questions such as: “When you are feeling anxious, what are you doing?” “What are you thinking?” “What’s your body telling you?” Notice that the coach is not asking “Why are you anxious?” or “What/Who is to blame for your anxiety?” but rather, “What are you doing, thinking…

How would those questions help Lacey make a behavioural choice that’s more effective than anxietying?

Behaviour from a Choice Theory perspective is not just the actions we take. It includes three additional components: what we think, how we feel, and what our physiology (body) does. This model of behaviour is called Total Behaviour, and it’s useful to know because some of these components are easier to influence than others. Where would one start with Lacey as she tries to change her anxietying behaviour? Read on for what Total Behaviour says about how to start doing something differently.

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