I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there’s one utterance that boils my blood faster than anything else on the planet.
“I don’t have a choice.”
My ears are steamy, hot, pressure-gauge red even as I type that.
I really do hate that sentence. And I’m a very tolerant and patient person that doesn’t “hate.” Very rarely do I even use that word, but I use it now. I HATE THAT SENTENCE, and I. HATE. every idea it represents.
That sentence and the idea behind it is PERVASIVE. It is woven into the language of mainstream media, tied to cartoons and movies and sitcoms and reality TV. Age does not discriminate against the use of that sentence. From small children and grown adults I have heard those words.
People that use that sentence LIKE to use it. They wrap the idea it represents around themselves like a forcefield security blanket. It makes them feel SAFE. It makes them feel that they are abdicated, or blameless. It makes them feel like no one can point a finger at them. It makes them feel lighter, and justified, and it allows them to let go of things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able.
In reality that sentence is something people say to propel themselves further toward mediocracy. It is a cop out, an “I quit” statement. It’s GIVING UP. It’s turning and running, going down without a fight. It is something that people say so often, something that we HEAR so often, we’ve stopped questioning the validity of it. We don’t question the idea behind it. In fact, MOST OF US ACTUALLY BELIEVE IT.
Most of us WANT to believe it.
People love to believe that sentence is true because when they don’t have a choice, it means that the resulting consequences are also not on them. It means it’s not THEIR FAULT. They believe that lack of choice will keep them safe from consequences, known or unknown, positive or negative, real or imaginary. People feel safer when they have no choice because they believe they are safe from the fallout.
But those people are WRONG. It’s not safer, it’s worse. The belief that we lack CHOICE is ruining us.
And before you think I’m being preachy, know that I’m not excluded from this. That belief very easily could have ruined ME.
Sometimes that sentence is cleverly disguised. People use words like “I can’t,” or “I had to,” or “I’ve got to.” It all means the same thing, though. “I can’t do this because of that” equals “I don’t get to choose because of fill-in-the-blank.” “I had to do it” means “I didn’t get to choose to NOT.” “I’ve got to go” means “I don’t have the choice to stay.”
Sometimes that sentence is combined with an excuse to reinforce to the one listening “See? I really don’t have a choice.” Such as, “I couldn’t work out today, I had to work instead.” In reality, though, the no-choice-plus-excuse statement is to reinforce in the mind of the one speaking that they “don’t have a choice.” What they don’t recognize is that the excuse is JUST for themselves, the one speaking, because the listener usually knows that the talker is full of shit.
When I hear “I don’t have a choice,” blatantly or in any of the sneaky tricksy disguised ways people use that sentence, I know the talker is full of shit.
If I heard it from you, I would tell you to your face that YOU are full of shit.
Does that piss you off?
If not, let me ask you this. When was the last time you didn’t do something you should have? Maybe you didn’t work out yesterday. Or today. Maybe you ate a meal you really shouldn’t have eaten. Didn’t meet a deadline at work, messed up an order you were supposed to make for something important. Forgot a birthday, got in an argument with someone you love about something stupid, reacted poorly to something someone did or said, reacted poorly to something someone didn’t do or didn’t say.
Think of that recent incident in your mind and really grab on tight. Put yourself back in the moment of sadness, or anger, or frustration. Remember how it felt? Remember how it made you tingle and throb with emotion? Could you feel your blood in your ears? Remember how you thought “it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t have a choice, I couldn’t, they shouldn’t have, I had to, they pissed me off?”
Remember all the reasons you used to explain to yourself why it happened?
Now I’ll say it again, and really listen this time.
You are full of shit.
It did not have to be that way.
It was at least MOSTLY your fault, because you were there, you were involved, it was YOUR LIFE, AND YOU ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE.
How about now. Now are you pissed off?
I WAS TOO. As I learned this lesson I was pissed most of the time, too, but I had to be. YOU have to be. YOU SHOULD BE PISSED OFF. You should feel denial, and you should be pissed off. It means the lesson is WORKING. It means you know deep down inside that there’s some truth to what I’m saying. If what I am saying was a total lie, it wouldn’t bother you in the least.
Learning this lesson was for me one of the most painful, angry, frustrating, RAGEFUL FURIOUS ANNOYING experiences of my life. And it took me a LONG FUCKING TIME to learn it. I remember as a child being told “Go to your room” after fighting with my sister when CLEARLY it was not my fault. “SHE did it, she started it, she made it worse.” The reply was the same.
“Doesn’t matter, you still chose to react like you did. Go to your room.”
In retrospect I probably could have been explained to a bit more about the WHY, but the lesson would have sucked to learn nonetheless. I did not WANT to learn the lesson. I resisted the lesson. I resisted that mentality. I DID NOT WANT TO SAY IT WAS MY FAULT. I don’t LIKE it when it’s my fault.
WE do not like it when it’s our fault.
And yet it IS our fault. OFTEN.
It is often our fault because we are there, and we are breathing and living and CAPABLE, and we are involved, and we always, always, always have a choice.
The lesson took me years to learn. YEARS. And not just a couple years. It took me all of my childhood, time on my own, a college education, a couple different jobs, and a lot of different teachers-managers-bosses-friends-mentors for me to finally hear and listen and accept and LEARN this lesson.
And it sucked the whole time, because I RESISTED THE WHOLE TIME. I denied it.
People that know me would tell you that I’m stubborn. (Insert barely restrained cackles of laughter from The Mister here. And from my family. And friends, and everyone else that has ever known me.) I’m quite sure that PURE DEFIANT STUBBORN WILLFULNESS made the lesson harder to learn. I was a tough egg to crack. But really, it had to be done if I was going to be in charge of my life.
The straw that broke my back was a conversation I had at work, and the straw was gently blown in my face by my manager.
It was a fairly normal day. I was working as an operations manager and assistant manager at one of the busiest Seattle branches of a fairly famous, publicly traded restaurant chain. I showed up early for work to sit and have my weekly meeting with the GM. Her name was Kristen.
After some small talk and pleasantries we got into the meat of the meeting. Normally I would open my handy dandy notebook and go through my action plans for the week, but this time it was different. Kristen leaned forward, put her hand on my notebook to keep me from opening it, and said, “Um…”
She had on her face the scared grin she usually used when she was going to discipline someone. She was an OVERLY nice person, easy going and genuinely kind, but that day she was nervous and uncomfortable. It was unsettling. I did not like it. She took a drink of water, rearranged herself in her chair, shuffled her papers. I waited. After the LONGEST FOUR SECONDS IN THE HISTORY OF TIME, she leaned forward a bit and said,
“There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
Alarm bells were going off like a fire drill in my head, but I replied with “…..okay?”
Kristen looked at me with fear and sorrow in equal amount and said to me, “Erin, no one likes you.”
To give you an indication of what kind of person I was at the time, my instinctive and immediate reply to her was, “First of all, FUCK YOU.”
“And SECONDLY, WHO THE FUCK IS “NO ONE,” BECAUSE I’LL GO DEAL WITH THEM RIGHT NOW.”
I’m kidding. MOSTLY. In my minds eye I was screaming, throwing her glass of water through the plate glass window, upturning tables and rampaging Godzilla style through the restaurant to find out “WHO THE FUCK HAS A PROBLEM WITH ME.” In reality I sat there in my chair totally blindsided, absolutely humiliated, pissed off more than I’ve ever been in my life, and completely at a loss as to what to do, or say, or think. I was hurt, and angry, and offended, and ashamed. AND ANGRY. My brain and my body were on two different planes of consciousness as I tried to sort through the flurry of thoughts and emotions. It’s one of the very few times in my life I was rendered entirely speechless.
The conversation carried on (albeit significantly one sided, since I stopped my mouth from working as to avoid shouting profanities). My emotional state changed from defensive, to ANGRY, to MORE angry, to STILL ANGRY, to negotiable. I was confused and bewildered and I didn’t know what to do next. By the time the meeting was over I was in a hugely deep state of depression.
Ever heard of the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief?
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
And I had to go through them all.
[I can hear you now. “GRIEF? REALLY?! …really. WHY. Why did you need to grieve. It’s not like something died.”]
Oh, but it did. Something did die that day.
Something inside of me died that day during that meeting. It is what psychologists refer to as “a significant emotional event.” That conversation was a GAME CHANGER. Something inside of me died, and in order to really let it go I had to grieve.
The thing that died was my denial.
My denial died, and EVERY SINGLE THING that had ever, ever happened to me, good or bad, came to me in a rush during that meeting. ALL OF IT. I realized that day that in one way or another IT WAS ALL MY FAULT. I realized that I had a choice with all things I had ever been a part of, with everything I’ve ever been involved in, and that my choices were pretty much pissed away because I refused to accept that they were mine to take.
On that day I realized that everything I was, and everything I am, and everything that I was ever going to be was on MY SHOULDERS, AND MINE ALONE.
During that meeting I started to own my life. ALL OF IT.
IT WAS HARD.
And it got harder.
The hardest part was accepting that all those times I screwed up, it really was ON ME. That my poor grades in college? Those weren’t on the job I blamed because I needed money (more excuses, more blame), those were on me. My weight gain during Freshman year? On me, not on the sorority chef’s cooking. The relationships that ended in shambles? Each of them at least half my fault.
My eating disorder? binging? starvation? weight fluxuation? unhealthy lifestyle? depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, anger, resentment, bitterness?
The hardest part was accepting that all those times I felt that I’d failed, it was at least mostly my fault.
The hardest part for YOU will be accepting that all those times you felt that YOU failed, it was at least mostly your fault.
And that’s the scary part. The HARD part. THAT RIGHT THERE IS WHY PEOPLE DO NOT WANT TO SAY “I ALWAYS HAVE A CHOICE.” Saying “I always have a choice” means “I always have the opportunity to fail.” It means that when I DO fail, it was MOSTLY ON ME. SCARY. People don’t like that. People don’t like to fail. We don’t WANT to fail.
BUT HERE’S THE THING.
Without the possibility of FAILURE, we also don’t have the possibility of SUCCESS. Tit for tat, hand in hand, yin and yang. You can’t have one without the other. If we don’t own our ability to choose and accept that we always, always have a choice, we will never be able to truly succeed. We become victim to the whim of someone else, or the situation thrust upon us, or the circumstances of fate. To really be successful we must embrace choice. We must MAKE choice. We must find any opportunity to make a choice and grab that choice by the THROAT. “I OWN THIS CHOICE, and by default I OWN MY FATE.”
“I AM A VICTIM TO NOTHING. I AM A VICTIM TO NO ONE.”
I do understand that life often dumps crap on us. And often we create piles of crap for ourselves. As I’ve said before, whether life dumps shit on your head or you create a pile of shit for yourself to sit in, what you decide to do AFTER THE SHITSTORM is what defines you as a person. You can choose to sit in shit OR you can choose to get up, probably get dirtier than you already are, clean off as best you can, and keep going.
When I was in high school I was watching a special on television about “the power of choice.” It involved a panel of people, ten all together, who had been smoking cigarettes, doing drugs, or drinking alcohol for a minimum of ten years each. The entire show consisted of a discussion between the panel of ten addicts and a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist started the show with the statement, “If you want to quit your addictive behaviors, you have the choice to do it.”
OUTRAGE from the panel. Most of the people raised their voices, almost all of them shook their heads. Over and over they said “WE HAVE NO CHOICE. I’m an addict, I have no control. It’s a disease. I have no choice to change, this chose me. It’s not my fault this happened.”
The documentary went into detail about each panel member, discussed their lives prior to and at the time of the interview, and highlighted each person’s reasons for starting their drug of choice. Most of the circumstances were legitimately upsetting. By the time the show was over no one was tempted to look at any of the addicts on the panel and say, “you had so much going for you, why did you make such a bad decision.” From abuse to molestation to rape to abandonment, every person had a story to tell that would make any decent human shudder.
Over the course of several hours the psychiatrist discussed with the group much of what I’m talking to you about here. He repeated to them over and over, “You have a choice. You ALWAYS have a choice.” He quoted Charles Swindoll and said “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” He told that group of broken, defeated, victimized people that there was HOPE. That there was a way out.
That they had a choice.
At the end of the show the camera panned across the people sitting on the stage. All ten people were still the same as they were several hours earlier, save one. While nine members of the group sat in classic defense mode, arms crossed, lips tight, and shaking their heads, one woman sat with a strange look on her face. She had her arms down to her sides, hands resting on her lap. She was leaned forward a bit in her chair, and her head was cocked slightly to one side. She was listening to the psychiatrist. REALLY listening. And she was thinking. And she smiled.
The narrator ended the show with a piece of information that stuck with me. He said that of the ten panel members, one accepted what the psychiatrist had told her and understood the power of choice. HER power of choice. The narrator said that she got up from that stage, walked off of the set, and never smoked or drank again.
She GOT it. It clicked.
Do I think it was a hard choice for her to make? ABSOLUTELY. Do I think every day after that choice was made was an easy one? NO FUCKING WAY.
I bet you that woman had hundreds of bad days. THOUSANDS. I bet you that woman wanted a cigarette and a drink to go with it within 24 hours of her decision. I’m quite sure she questioned more than one hundred times within the first month “Did I make the right choice?”
I also bet you, though, that she never relapsed. That she never quit or gave in. Or if she DID give in, I bet it was an occasional thing, and I bet she did it with an intentional mind and a clear conscience. I bet that she understood that it was her CHOICE that dictated her actions, not her impulse. Not her COMPULSION. I would guess that one drink or cigarette after her decision to quit wasn’t enough to derail her progress because the drink didn’t happen TO HER, SHE happened to want the drink. And so she chose to do it. No victim there.
Sound familiar, Rebels?
No one is saying that the choices you make will be easy. Or that you’ll not regret them, or that you will be happy with every single choice you ever make.
What I’m saying is JUST MAKE THEM. OWN them. TAKE THEM.
Understand that in this moment right now, YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE BECAUSE YOU HAVE THE POWER TO CHOOSE.
No matter how shitty and horrible the options are for you to choose from, you always have a choice. Even if it’s a choice between “smelly pile of crap A” and “slightly-less-smelly-but-more-runny pile of crap B,” YOU STILL HAVE A CHOICE. And most choices aren’t to be made between two horrible things. Most choices will include in them something wonderful. Something BETTER. Something hopeful.
Be very, very careful what you say. BE VERY CAREFUL WHAT YOU BELIEVE. Turn your awareness levels up to DEFCON 1 and resist with everything you have the impulse to place blame on something other than yourself. RESIST. Think carefully when you use the words “can’t,” and “shouldn’t,” and “got to,” and “have to.” Choose to remove those phrases from your vocabulary. Take time to THINK, and recognize how many choices you have in a normal day that you’ve never even considered taking because of the “I have no choice” mentality. TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED. Question everything, and understand that every single thing that happens to you and around you provides you with choices to potentially make your life better.
Refuse to feel safe in The Land Of No Choices.
Choose to live in The Land Of Choice, where the joy and success in life is there because YOU CHOSE.
Own your fate. Start by owning your life. ALL OF IT.