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Category: Free to Choose

The Power of Having Choice

June 28, 2023

Images from pixabay.com

Life presents many choices; the choices we make determine our future.

– Catherine Pulsifer

Someone asked me recently to talk about a significant choice I made in my life and how it impacted my future. The one example that came to my mind seemed silly and rather insignificant, but it truly impacted the trajectory of my life. I was 18 years old, in my senior year of high school, and, like many of my peers, struggling with my attitude. I was in a funk and was tired of it. On a bus ride to California with most of the students in band and orchestra, I made the decision to switch things up. My plan of action was simple: spend time with specific friends I loved but didn’t see often, starting with a few on the bus with me. This decision led me to spend more time with a dear friend (and later, college roommate). She introduced me to a group of happy, lively students who welcomed me with open arms. I’m still in touch with most of that group today – one of which is now my husband!

I’ve since looked back at that moment and wondered why it stood out in particular to me. Obviously it led me to the most important relationship in my life, but I think it was more than that. It was the moment I realized that I had the power to change my own circumstances, even when I couldn’t control everything around me.

The desire to be in control of everything in my life has stuck with me and, unsurprisingly, has led to a good deal of anxiety. When working with my therapist, I’ve identified that my anxiety is at its worst when I feel I have the least control over the situation. But I’ve also discovered that in every case, no matter how stressful, I have control over my choices – particularly the choice of how I respond to the situation. It gives me a sense of power, a sense of control that would otherwise be lacking. 

No matter what the situation, remind yourself, “I have a choice.”

– Deepak Chopra

This lesson on the power of choice was taught to me as a young child. As a form of discipline, my sisters and I would have to sit on the stairs when we were arguing or acting out in other ways. We hated that. To be made to sit and watch everything happen around you and not be part of it? It felt completely unfair! To make matters worse, before we could get off the stairs, we had to answer the question, “What did you do wrong, and what could you have done differently?” We had to identify our individual actions (rather than blame our sisters) in order to be released. Unbeknownst to me, my parents were teaching us the importance of being aware of our own choices (and consequences) rather than immediately putting the blame on others. (It wasn’t until years later that I realized that technically I also had the choice to get up off the stairs. For some reason that didn’t occur to me until far too late!)

This childhood lesson is one that I saw repeated in my job as an aide in a preschool. The school emphasized using language that focused on the students’ choices. Something like, “You can choose to pick up the toys or you can choose to skip part of recess.” This language has carried over into my own parenting. I think my kids understand the concept a little too well – they often suggest alternative choices rather than picking one from my list! But I can see the understanding starting even as children – they know they have the power to choose their actions.

Every day brings new choices.

– Martha Beck

Sometimes we make choices that lead to disappointment, but the beauty is that our power of choice doesn’t go away. My daughter’s Kindergarten teacher called these poor choices, “red choices” (the opposite being “green choices”), and the terminology stuck in our family. My oldest daughter is quick to break down any time she feels she has made a “red choice.” One of the most important lessons I try to teach her is that, even if we make a “red choice” one time, we have the power to choose differently next time. There is always a chance to make a “green choice.” Talking about her options for the future helps her calm down and feel in control. I remind her that everyone (myself especially) makes mistakes, and that we keep trying to do better every day.

I hope that in times of distress, especially when things feel out of control, we can reach within ourselves and identify the power we have to make a choice.