If you want something different than what you have, you’ll need to do something differently than what you’ve been doing. It’s not a radical idea, but have you noticed that it’s easier said than done?
Let’s revisit the scenario of Lacey, a young woman who has been increasingly troubled with anxiety since she became an adult learner.
Although a Reality Therapy coach may rephrase her situation as, “Lacey is anxietying,” that’s not to imply that Lacey can simply choose to stop feeling anxious!
Is there anything that Lacey can choose to do differently? If so, where might she start if she wants to change her anxietying behaviour to a more effective behaviour for her life?
The model of behaviour used in Choice Theory/Reality Therapy is called Total Behaviour. That is, “behaving” consists not only of what we are doing; there are additional elements—what we are thinking, what we are feeling, and what is happening in our body (our physiology).
According to Dr. Glasser, we are able to exert direct control over our actions and our thoughts and only indirectly influence our feelings and our physiology. Think of a front-wheel drive car: we can directly control the front drive wheels—our doing and thinking, while the rear wheels—our feelings and physiology, follow along for the ride.
You’ve probably already experienced those influences. When tired and feeling down, engaging in even a simple activity such as walking can lift your spirits. Or, talking with an optimistic friend helps you start thinking differently, and you find your fatigue gone. By changing your actions or thinking, you have influenced your feelings and physiology.
How might Total Behaviour be helpful for Lacey? Let’s see how a coaching session might go, as Lacey expresses what she’s feeling. “I failed a big test and now I feel anxious all the time.”
According to Total Behaviour, it’s difficult to influence feelings directly, regardless of how much will-power or determination you exert. So the approach will be to help Lacey work on the parts of her behaviour that she can influence: her actions and her thinking.
The coach could get Lacey to first focus on the action part of her behaviour with, “When you are feeling most anxious, what are you doing?”
“Nothing much. I guess it’s worst in the evening when I’m trying to study. If the work makes no sense to me, I keep reading the same paragraphs over and over. So I don’t get the work finished, and I start dreading going to class the next day. Then when I go to bed, I can’t sleep or I wake up in the middle of the night.”
It’s clear that the feeling component of Lacey’s total behaviour is fully engaged, and in a way that’s not very helpful! Lacey is distressing and to add to her discomfort, her physiology is responding with sleeplessness.
So the coach might ask, “What are you thinking at that point?”
“That I’ll never pass this course, let alone get a job. My whole future is in jeopardy, and I’m letting the people down who believe in me. ”
Are there more effective actions and thoughts that Lacey could have? It will be up to Lacey to choose them, but first, she needs to figure out what they might be. Her coach could help by having Lacey draw on her own experience. “Is there a time recently when you haven’t felt anxious? What were you doing then?”
“I’m not anxious when I’m with my friends. Or when I’m working in a group and I actually understand what’s going on. I even explain some of the work to others. Then I feel great, like I can learn anything. But when I come home and I’m alone, the feeling comes back again, especially when I try to study.”
So Lacey’s life is not completely consumed by her anxious feelings. Can she figure out how to reduce her anxietying time and increase her confident time? The coach might ask, “What do you see as your options when you are anxious, alone, and unable to study?”
“I could phone a classmate, I guess, and we could work on the problems together. Or I could pretend I’m in a group; that is, I could try explaining the work out loud as if there were someone else there. That might help.”
In real life, of course, solutions are seldom found in a few paragraphs. There could be many options to consider and much more discussion required for Lacey to work those out. The power of knowing Total Behaviour is that Lacey can begin doing or thinking differently, which will influence her feelings, and possibly even influence her physiology.