Glasser’s Choice Theory

Choice theory is a noncontrolling psychology that gives us the freedom to sustain the relationships that lead to healthy, productive lives.

Glasser states that if we are not sick, poverty stricken or suffering the ravages of old age, the major human problems we struggle with – violence, crime, child abuse, spousal abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, the proliferation of premature and unloving sex and emotional distress – are caused by unsatisfying relationships.

These are husband-wife, parent-child, teacher-student and manager-worker. He claims that if we do not improve these relationships, we will have little success in reducing any of the problems in the previous paragraph.

We all choose all our actions and thoughts and, indirectly, almost all our feelings and much of our physiology…The seeds of almost all our unhappiness are planted early in our lives when we begin to encounter people who have discovered not only what is right for them – but also, unfortunately, what is right for us.  Armed with this discovery and following a destructive tradition that has dominated our thinking for thousands of years, THESE PEOPLE FEEL OBLIGATED TO TRY TO FORCE US TO DO WHAT THEY KNOW IS RIGHT.  Our choice of how we resist that force is, by far, the greatest source of human misery.  CHOICE THEORY CHALLENGES THIS ANCIENT  ‘I-KNOW-WHAT’S-RIGHT-FOR-YOU’ TRADITION.

From the perspective of forty years of psychiatric practice, it has become apparent to me that ALL UNHAPPY PEOPLE HAVE THE SAME PROBLEM: THEY ARE UNABLE TO GET ALONG WELL WITH THE PEOPLE THEY WANT TO GET ALONG WELL WITH…Our present psychology has failed claims Glasser.

Glasser calls this universal psychology that destroys relationships because it destroys personal freedom, external control psychology. The control can be as slight as a disapproving glance or as forceful as a threat to our lives. …it is an attempt to force us to do what we may not want to do.  We end up believing that other people can actually make us feel the way we feel or do the things we do.  THIS BELIEF TAKES AWAY THE PERSONAL FREEDOM WE ALL NEED AND WANT.

The simple operational premise of the external control psychology the world uses is: PUNISH THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DOING WRONG, SO THEY WILL DO WHAT WE SAY IS RIGHT; THEN REWARD THEM, SO THEY KEEP DOING WHAT WE WANT THEM TO DO.

What makes this psychology so prevalent is that THOSE WHO HAVE THE POWER – AGENTS OF GOVERNMENT, PARENTS, TEACHERS, BUSINESS MANAGERS AND RELIGIOUS LEADERS, WHO ALSO DEFINE WHAT’S RIGHT AND WRONG – TOTALLY SUPPORT IT.  And the people they control, having so little control over their own lives, find some security in accepting the control of these powerful people.

…it continues because when people do not do what we want them to do, coercion and control are all we think of using...the powerless accept it because as miserable as they may be, they believe that they are not free to choose otherwise.  They further believe, usually correctly, that to resist would be worse.

The heart and soul of this book is ‘Will what I am about to do bring me closer to these people or move us further apart?

One of the most puzzling exceptions to this widespread use of external control psychology is that we rarely use it with our best friends, …with them, even though few of us are aware of it, we use choice theory. …We recognise that good friends are our most reliable source of long-term happiness.

If we practiced choice theory with everyone, we would make – and keep – many more friends, and our happiness would be substantially increased. What may also be involved here is OWNERSHIP.  Most of us believe that we should or do own our husbands, wives, children, students and employees…As long as we believber that we own people, we don’t hesitate to force them when they don’t do what we want them to do.  We feel differently with our friends; we accept that we don’t own them and they don’t own us.

Glasser states three beliefs of external control psychology…

First belief:  I answer a ringing phone, open the door to a doorbell, stop at a red light, or do countless other things because I am responding to a simple external signal.

Second belief: I can make other people do what I want them to do even if they do not want to do it.  And other people can control how I think, act and feel.

Third belief: It is right, it is even my moral obligation, to ridicule, threaten, or punish those who don’t do what I tell them to do or even reward them if it will get them to do what I want.

These three commonsense beliefs are the foundation of the external control psychology that essentially rules the world.…The foundation of these beliefs, that we are externally motivated, is WRONG.

…we do not answer a phone because it rings; we answer it because we want to…the ring does have a purpose, but it is not to make you answer.  …Choice theory explains that stimuli, in the sense that they can consistently control a human being to make a specific choice, do not exist…When we do as we are told, it is because we choose to do it on the basis of the information we have. …Choice theory explains that we are, as all living creatures, internally motivated.

Glasser states what seems the obvious, that a relationship with your child is more important than their schoolwork.  What a difference it would make if all parents could believe this.

To achieve and maintain the relationship we need, we must stop choosing to coerce, force, compel, punish, reward manipulate, boss, motivate, criticise, blame, complain, nag, badger, rank, rate and withdraw. We must replace these destructive behaviours with choosing to care, listen, support, negotiate, encourage, love, befriend, trust, accept, welcome and esteem. …Since our language is a mirror of our culture, this is strong evidence that we live in a world that is attuned more to destroying relationships than to preserve them.

Glasser says, in just one area, public education, billions of dollars continue to be spent to improve school success, with no improvement no matter how success is measured. …Students who get along well with their teachers and with each other are almost always successful.

To be happy, Glasser believes we need to be close to other happy people.  Therefore, the fewer happy people there are, the less chance any of us have for happiness.

…Two groups of unhappy people – first unhappy group tries to find the way back to happiness, which I define as pleasurable relationships with happy people.  The second unhappy group has given up on finding happiness with happy people; they no longer even try to have pleasurable relationships. …Almost all these unhappy people have abandoned good relationships for nonhuman pleasure.

…If there is a defining characteristic of AA, it is that the organisation uses much more choice theory than external control.

Failure at love may top the list of human misery. …There are probably more unhappily married people who never divorce than those who do.

It is hard, if not impossible, to love someone who wants to control and change you or someone you want to control and change.   …To get sex, which can provide pleasure without love, many people are willing to act as if they are in love when they are not.

Depending on your mate for everything is asking more than what most relationships can provide.  Glasser says that at a minimum, we want someone to listen to what we have to say. If no-one listens to us, we feel the pain of the powerless, the kind of pain you feel in a foreign country when you are trying to get information and no-one speaks your language.  In a choice theory world, many more people would enjoy the benefits of listening to each other without trying to get the last word.

The Golden rule according to Dr. Glasser is: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. External control, the child of power, is the enemy of freedom.  Its bloody rule, use the power you have to kill the people who don’t agree with you, is the leading cause of suffering around the world. …Creative people who feel free to create are rarely selfish; they get a lot of pleasure from sharing their gift.

…If you will do what I say, I will protect you against the forces of evil, is the working maxim of every tyrant who has ever lived.

Excerpts of Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom W.Glasser M.D.  Harper Collins 1998

Edited by M.McKenna Sept. 2010

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