Let’s Talk About… Choice

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 50 and this week I’m talking about choice – I’ll be discussing the role of choice in good mental health and how to be more thoughtful in your choices. So, let’s talk about mental health!

This is the fourth in a series of four episodes about the foundations of good mental health and this week is all about choice, so let’s get talking!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

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FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
  • Every day we make thousands of little choices (and the odd big choice), and we do so both consciously and subconsciously. 
  • Our choices determine what happens next in our lives; where we go, what we do, and, ultimately, how we grow as human beings.
  • ‘Choice’ is how we determine our lives in spite of the things that happen around us and the struggles we might face internally.
  • Responsible choices consider both our individual needs and the needs of everybody else (because it isn’t an either/or proposition).
  • If we’re struggling with issues, regardless of whether they’re external or internal, then what we choose to do determines what happens next.

Introduction

Every day we make thousands of little choices (and the odd big choice), and we do so both consciously and subconsciously. Our choices determine what happens next in our lives; where we go, what we do, and, ultimately, how we grow as human beings. Often the tiniest of decisions can end up having a monumental impact on your future, and so that’s where we are all challenged to be conscious of the choices we’re making and to consider what our choices say about the type of person we want to be; do we do no harm? Are we kind? Do we give more than we take? 

Last week I had someone who was absolutely itching for an argument with me on Instagram because he didn’t agree with my comments about having direct control over your own words, actions and feelings (the point being that everything else is outside of your direct control) and he decided that I was saying depression and anxiety are a choice, which is not at all what I said or what I would ever say. Now the thing is that I try to take a balanced approach to these types of situations — I’m not just going to outright ignore people with different opinions, because I believe cancel culture is dangerous as it doesn’t allow us to explore new ideas or create meaningful dialogue with one another, but I’m also not going to put up with shit… and some people just want to stir the pot and argue. Which was exactly what happened in this case: everything I said was taken and reinterpreted, so after the third message I just wished him the best of luck for the future and told him I won’t be arguing and then I blocked him. I didn’t immediately block or mute him and even though I wanted to tell him just to unfollow me I didn’t, because that would just be more negative energy; instead, I stuck to my three chances and you’re out approach — I’ll try to have a meaningful discussion, but I’m not going to drag it on if it’s heading into negative territory (or if you’re just going to abuse and insult me). That’s my choice, and we always have a choice to walk away — I believe in always trying to meet halfway, but it’s a fact of life that some people just will not agree with you (or like you) no matter what you say or do. 

Years ago I was managing a training and recruitment team at one of the big banks here in Australia and I had to work with a business partner from Head Office who absolutely hated me; I don’t know why, but from the first time we met she was rude and hostile, and it only got worse over the time we worked together. Now I couldn’t help myself; I tried to get her to like me or at least be civil to me (because it triggered a whole bunch of rejection issues for me) but in the end I realised that it was pointless and the choice to let go of what she thought of me was mine to make. Some people will not like you or agree with you, no matter what you do or say, and all you can do is be the bigger person and choose to let go. 

And that’s my point: in all things we have choice. Even in our darkest moments, when we might be struggling to manage our feelings, we still have choice — we can either sink into our feelings, or we can choose to observe them thoughtfully and seek to understand why they’re happening. Sometimes our feelings pop up without us realising it and it might seem like we can’t control them, but given that you can always choose whether or not to believe your thoughts and feelings that means that you ultimately do have choice and control. If you choose to throw your hands up in the air and say it’s completely out of your control, you’re allowing yourself to be a victim of your feelings or a victim of circumstance. I know very few people would be happy about being told they’re falling into a victim mindset, but I’m not going to sugarcoat this. If you think you can’t change your circumstances then you’re wrong.

So what is choice, and how does it relate to mental health and wellbeing?

What is choice?

The idea of ‘choice’ is about selecting from multiple possible actions, such as doing something versus not doing something. In some situations you might have many choices (for example, when you’re shopping for furniture and have lots of different retailers and styles to choose from) or it might be as limited as do/don’t do (for example, get out of bed versus don’t get out of bed). Each choice determines the next event, and each chain of events will shape your reality. So yes, even that decision to stop off and grab a coffee in the morning will change your reality because you’re in a different physical place than you would be if you chose not to grab a coffee.

Everything in life is a choice, whether it’s a conscious choice or a subconscious choice that happens without us even thinking about it, and even the smallest of choices can potentially have a big effect on what happens to you and also to others around you. Let me tell you a story I heard many years ago to illustrate my point; I will say upfront that this probably falls more into the fable category (in terms of being driven by a specific moral) rather than an actual true story, so don’t go messaging me asking me to provide evidence that this actually happened (lol!) because whether it did or not isn’t really the point… 

One day, an old man was walking along the beach and he could see that overnight hundreds — maybe thousands — of starfish had been washed up onto the sand. As he inspected the scene, in the distance he saw the figure of a person near the waterline bending over repeatedly, and so he walked over to see what was happening. As he approached, he realised it was a young boy who was picking up the starfish one-by-one and throwing them back into the water. The old man scoffed to himself at the futile nature of the boy’s efforts since there were just too many starfish to try to rescue and decided that he would go over and help the boy realise the error of his ways. He reached the boy and asked, “What are you doing?” The young boy gave him a look as if to say that it should be obvious, but then replied respectfully, “I’m helping the starfish get back into the water.” The old man shook his head and asked, “Why? There are just too many washed up — there’s no way you can make a difference.” The young boy thought for a moment, then looked down at all the starfish scattered along the miles and miles of beach. He shrugged, and then chose to pick up another starfish and throw it into the water. “Well, I made a difference to that one,” he replied.

My point here is that each thing we do has an impact of some type, and so the choices we make can have a ripple effect not only on our lives but the lives of those around us, whether friend or stranger. 

Choice is how we determine our lives in spite of the things that happen around us and the struggles we might face internally. For example how you respond to the challenges presented by COVID is up to you — do you get angry at the virus? Do you become angry with political decisions? Or do you accept what is outside of your control and then choose to move forward with dignity and positivity? Because that’s pretty much what we’re talking about here: choosing to have dignity and positivity in all things. 

Now, more than ever, we’re being asked to make choices that balance our individual needs with our collective needs — such as complying with public health guidelines in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe as well as to protect everyone in the wider community, especially the most vulnerable. So what do we do? Do we choose to have a tantrum and carry on like a toddler because we’re being asked to do things that we don’t like? Or do we choose to take a step back and think about the bigger picture; about the notion of our individual needs plus the needs of everybody else (because it isn’t an either/or proposition), or as I refer to it, covering both the ‘me’ and the ‘we’, because the choices we make need to balance both. 

You can’t have a world that’s just all about you because we’re all connected and we’re all sharing this planet, which is why this stuff is relevant to mental health — as within, so without. If we all just made the world about ourselves and only ourselves then we would descend into chaos and anarchy, and I don’t know about you but I’m not keen to live in The Purge (because I am not a very fast runner, so I’d be toast!). Being conscious and thoughtful when it comes to our choices, and looking at the bigger picture (in terms of both ‘me’ and ‘we’), is what matters most in life.

Why is choice a core foundation of good mental health? 

Well this week it might surprise you that I’m not going to be quoting any statistics or research, since I usually do, and the reason why is that the notion of choice is absolutely fundamental to everything I talk about in terms of mental health and wellbeing — which is why I chose it as the last of the four topics related to this Foundations of Good Mental Health series — and because of that I’ve decided to focus on stories this week to illustrate my point, instead of statistics. 

Let me tell you a story about a man by the name of Dr Viktor Frankl, who I have quoted a few times in this podcast before; maybe you’ve heard of him before. Dr Frankl was born in 1905 in Austria and became a neurologist and psychiatrist, and he was Jewish. During World War II, Dr Frankl and most of his family were deported by the Nazis to various concentration camps — Viktor’s wife, father, mother and brother all died in the camps while his sister was able to escape to Australia. During the three years he spent in four different concentration camps, Dr Frankl chose to use his skills to help others and also observe the reactions of other prisoners. 

When he was finally liberated and returned to Vienna, he found himself having to readjust to a world where everyone he knew and loved was gone. During that time he spent just nine days writing a book that would go on to become Man’s Search for Meaning, which became an international bestseller and was named as one of the ten most influential books in the US by the US Library of Congress in the early 1990’s (and which is still considered by many to be one of the most important books of all time). Even before the war, Frankl had been developing his own psychological theory called Logotherapy (which means ‘healing through meaning’) and it’s based on the idea that the main thing which motivates each of us in life is to find meaning; many of the concepts of logotherapy have been applied into psychological tools we know today such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). 

Coming back to the idea of choice, what is of particular interest here is a sentence that Dr Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, which is:

“Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Dr. Viktor Frankl

No matter what happens to us, around us or within us, we always have a choice about what happens next in terms of what we do, what we say and what we feel. Nobody can make that choice for us and nobody can take that choice from us, no matter how hard they might try. Each word, each action, even every inaction (in other words, the things we choose not to do or not to say), all of these are ours and ours alone. And that is why choice is such a fundamental part of good mental health and wellbeing: because the way we choose to respond to our internal and external circumstances will determine what happens next and will shape our reality. 

You know, I mentioned earlier in the episode that even small choices can have a big impact and I did so because life is a collection of small moments with the odd big thing thrown in every now and then for good measure. How we choose to move through all of those small moments will determine what happens next as well as how we grow. Which brings me to another quote from Man’s Search for Meaning

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Dr. Viktor Frankl

I’m going to repeat that. (REPEAT).

Right now, at this very moment in time, you choose what happens next. Do you say ‘yes’ or do you say ‘no’? Do you make a decision which does no harm, is kind, and serves to give more than it takes? Because all of those things — and more — are what enable us to grow, even if it’s just a little bit. And if you grow just a little every single day, then that will build over weeks, months and years and so on… and that’s when you realise that finding meaning, living a life that satisfies you and being the best possible version of yourself doesn’t require you to go off to the woods or sit on a mountaintop meditating for four years; it simply involves you making a series of small choices every day which are aligned to your personal growth. If you’re struggling with your mental health or feeling generally stressed, that won’t just disappear magically overnight because you pop a pill or quit your job or move cities or whatever. It takes time, effort and perseverance combined with conscious choice… which might sound exhausting, but in a moment I’ll talk through how to do that.

Before I do, let me just talk for a second about some of the controversy surrounding Viktor Frankl’s work because I make a point in this program of respecting the scientific method which looks at all sides of an issue rather than just taking things on face value. Some critics have felt that Frankl was suggesting that victims of the Holocaust would have survived if they had just been more optimistic, and that they died because they had given up… none of which is true and is certainly not what Dr Frankl said. This is a common criticism of a lot of this stuff, especially in the positive psychology space, and it certainly doesn’t help when people make claims about positive thinking fixing everything. It won’t. But realistic optimism, which I talked about back in Episode 47 as the first episode in this series of four about the foundations of good mental health, will help you to look for solutions rather than problems… and when you actively look for solutions, you’re more likely to actually find them. 

There are two types of people in this world; those who believe things are happening to them (and so what happens in their life is out of their hands), and those who believe that things are happening around them (and so what happens in their life is determined by the choices they make). I have no shame in saying that I am the latter; that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to be, however for me I just couldn’t imagine living a life where I felt like a victim of my circumstances. I’ve lived through a lot of horrible shit: my father left when I was seven and remarried, and I rarely ever saw him after that; my mother was very violent physically and also thoroughly enjoyed inflicting emotional abuse on me and at the same time I was bullied almost non-stop at school, so I didn’t feel safe anywhere; and then as an adult I’ve had to deal with anxiety, depression and sometimes-crippling insecurity along with developing issues with alcohol and food… my point is, if I just threw my hands up in the air and let myself be a victim of all of that, I’d probably be sitting in the corner of a padded cell rocking back and forth. 

Finding meaning in our lives and accepting that choice always lies with us is, in my opinion, far more preferable to a life focused on the negative, and this all ties into that much bigger subject of meaning which is something I will look at it in a few months’ time. For now, let me finish up this ‘why’ section by sharing a paragraph from the Viktor Frankl Institute of America about Dr Frankl’s thoughts on choice and personal responsibility: 

“[Dr Frankl] cautioned about the trend he saw in modern psychotherapy with its tendency to reduce an individual to nothing more than a victim of influences of nature or nurture. This, he felt, stripped people from any freedom of choice or responsibility… Calling for a re-humanization of psychotherapy, he emphasized the importance of reconnecting people with personal responsibility in order to overcome feelings of meaninglessness and despair.”

Source: Viktor Frankl Institute of America (https://viktorfranklamerica.com/viktor-frankl-bio/)

And so with all of that in mind, let’s get into the how-to section of this weeks’ episode.

How to approach choice more thoughtfully for better mental health

So I’m going to start with a few ‘how not-to’ items and then I’ll cover off on the ‘how-to’ stuff. 

How not-to deal with ‘choice’:

  • Don’t make choices based on fear or anger — if you’re in a difficult situation, step away and let the emotions settle before you make a decision on what to do next. Words and actions that are based on fear or anger will rarely deliver positive outcomes in the long-run, because they’re like to be reactive rather than thought-out.
  • Don’t blame others for the choices you make — if you stuff up, fine… own up to it, make it right and learn from the mistake so you don’t repeat it. And remember that in most situations there are three versions of the truth: yours, theirs, and the actual truth which generally lies somewhere in the middle. Nothing is completely black or white.
  • Don’t blame circumstances for the choices you make — that reinforces the notion that you’re a victim of fate, which you’re not. Shitty things happen, but we still have choice over what we do next.
  • Don’t hide behind freedom of choice as an excuse for being an arsehole — if you’re endangering people or denying them their basic human dignity, that’s not a choice; that’s a hate crime. It’s up to each of us to practice a little basic human decency towards one another, even if we don’t always agree with other people and their choices. If it isn’t harming anyone then let people be (and that means doing actual harm, not you thinking it causes harm because you don’t like it or agree with it).
  • The same goes for hiding behind ‘being funny’ — especially where I live, in the countryside, there’s a bit of a shitty attitude towards political correctness and you’ll hear people say “Oh, you can’t even have a joke anymore” — ummm, well if that means that you can’t make fun of people because of things they have no control over like their race or sexual orientation, then no you can’t have a joke at the expense of other people. Choice is about making fair choices for all, not just making choices that keep other people ‘in their place’ or deny them of basic human dignities. 

OK, so let’s focus on the more positive stuff now.

How-to be more thoughtful about your choices:

  • Stop and think — there is a big difference between ‘reacting’ (which is instinctive) and ‘responding’ (which is thoughtful and considered). When you’re faced with a challenging situation, either internally or externally, pause for a few minutes and calm yourself, then consider all of the available options. If you need to take a bit longer to make a choice that feels right for you, take the time you need (although maybe don’t drag it out for days and days on end!) [which leads me to]
  • Aim for satisfactory decisions, rather than perfect — nothing in life will ever be perfect and if you spend your time trying to make a perfect choice you’ll end up paralysed by uncertainty. Sometimes you have to compromise a little, and sometimes you have to just take a leap of faith rather than waiting for the conditions to be perfect (because they never will be perfect).
  • Your choices should be focused on what you want rather than what you don’t want — Why? Because positivity breeds positivity, while negativity breeds negativity. I talked about this back in Episode 31 (Mindset) and it really is up to you whether you focus on the problem or focus on the solution, but whichever one you focus on is what you will find… 
  • Make things as simple as possible for yourself — often we overcomplicate things in life which leads to issues down the track, and quite frankly I’ve found over the past few years that making conscious choices to simplify my life has not only made things easier for me but has also helped my mental health, because I’m no longer having to deal with keeping 16,000 balls in the air at one time. Look for the simplest solution to all challenges; sometimes pursuing simplicity will take a bit of work in the short-term and it may not always be easy, but it will pay off in the long-term.
  • The ‘right’ choice is not always the easy choice — continuing from the idea of simplicity, it’s also important to accept that doing what is right isn’t always going to be easy. I’ve talked openly in recent weeks about my Mum going into a nursing home and it is the last thing in the world that she wanted (she even made me promise many years ago that I would never put her in a home as she was terrified of the idea of it); so even though this was definitely not an easy choice, it was still the right one to make. 
  • Know that everything starts and ends with you and the choices you make — will you choose to do no harm to yourself, to be kind (the absence of harm doesn’t automatically equal kindness) and give more than you take? Then it’s about how you treat others and the choices you make — no harm, be kind, give more than take. How you treat yourself and how you treat others will directly influence your life and the world around you.
  • A big part of that is having a positive mindset, which I explored in Episode 31, and being realistically optimistic, which I covered in more detail in Episode 47 so check that out (find transcripts and audio links for all past episodes at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes)
  • I also encourage you each day to set habits around making conscious choices: set daily intentions, take time at the end of each day for some objective reflection (see Episode 12 for detailed instructions), and choose to learn from your mistakes —  nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes; the biggest test in life is whether or not you actually learn from your mistakes so you don’t keep on repeating them, because that is what growth is all about.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to choice and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Life is what we make of it, regardless of what might be going on around us and even within us. An unknown author once wrote that, “choice, not chance, determines destiny,” and so we are each challenged to think about how the choices we make are shaping our future. If we’re struggling with issues, regardless of whether they’re external or internal, then what we choose to do determines what happens next: do nothing, and nothing changes; do something, and everything changes.

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Nelson Mandela, and it is:

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”

Nelson Mandela

Next week I’ll be talking about perseverance. When I talk about mental health as well as our wellbeing in general, I often mention the need for perseverance; for having resolve and for continuing to do things for the benefit of your overall wellbeing in spite of potential setbacks and challenges. So next week I’ll be exploring how the idea of perseverance fits in with wellbeing, why it matters for good mental health, and how to persevere.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland, Europe and the Middle East; and Sunday afternoon in the US, Canada and the rest of the Americas. 

You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here) — if you haven’t already subscribed to the YouTube channel please do as there will be a lot of extra content coming to that platform very soon.

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

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