“I can always choose, but I ought to know that if I do not choose, I am still choosing” (J.P. Sartre).
There have been times in your life when you felt like there are no choices to be made or maybe you figured that because you cannot see additional possibilities, there are none. You rationalize that when it comes to things that are external to you, you have no choice in the matter. If you can think of the situations that shaped your current views on choice, you might realize that most if not all have something in common: in those situations you either felt overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the choices available. In such situations, our thinking is no longer abstract and filled with possibilities; rather it becomes split in a black and white type of mentality. Why is that?
Why is it that in the situations that count, “fate” seems to be against you? How come other less stressful or negative situations do not bring the same kind of ambivalence? Is it because the stakes are higher? And if that is so, do you really have no control over the outcome?
Depending on your investment in a situation and how much you have to lose (higher stakes) the choices you find yourself in front of are never optimal (too many or none at all). The more you have to lose, the more pressured you feel to get out of that situation at any price; your lens narrows, trying to focus on what makes sense at the time (whether truly relevant or not) and losing the rest of the “details” in the background. You lose sight of everything around, including possibilities and options that in an easier situation would easily reveal themselves to you.
Periods of extreme stress lead us to fight or flight and all the basic instincts that come with it. In this state, our brain is trained to shift the way it makes connections and our entire perspective changes in order to adapt to the current reality. It’s easier to see the issues (because you are so alert) but possibilities, choices, and positives are harder to distinguish because, at that time, your priorities change.
This is why during periods of stress professionals recommend taking a step back from the situation, so that you have the necessary room to breathe and check in with yourself. Professionals also recommend talking with someone (possibly someone who has no agenda in your life) because another set of eyes might be able to help you see your situation from a different perspective.
Doing either of these things is a choice in itself; just like choosing not to or assuming that when there are no choices to be made, you’re in fact choosing not to choose.
There are times when making a choice can seem almost impossible, and there are terrible situations that bring about a number of all undesirable choices. Still, I think there’s something empowering about knowing that no matter how difficult, you do have a choice. It takes that situation out of anything or anybody’s hands and puts it into yours.
I appreciate how choices help me take responsibility for myself, putting me in charge of figuring out what the consequences will be and giving me the freedom to make decisions for my future. How about you? What is your perspective on hard to make choices? Is it easier to think that there are no choices in tough situations? How does that help?