The Illusion of Choice

Do you ever wonder why you choose self-sabotaging or destructive behaviours? What if you weren’t consciously choosing them? 

A few years ago, my parents and I were having a conversation. Dad was feeling misunderstood. Through his frustration, he elevated his voice and spoke with a measured and paced tone. I questioned Dad if there was a need for him to raise his voice. To which he balked: “I’m NOT raising my voice!”. I noticed my heart rate increasing and I realized I was scared. “Dad, when you raise your voice like that, some part of me gets scared. I know you are simply trying to make a point, but the tone of your voice pushes me away”, I nervously explained.

Was Dad choosing to become angry? Did I choose to become scared? Clearly Dad’s behaviour created the opposite of what he really wanted, to be understood. So, why would he do that? Obviously Dad was “triggered”. He did not consciously choose to become angry and raise his voice. (This doesn’t mean he is not responsible for his behaviour. It just means he is unaware that he is creating it)

Choice is defined as the act of selecting or making a decision from a number of possibilities. This implies an awareness of the possibilities. Afterall, how could anyone choose an option they are not aware of? 

Let’s think of choices as different levels of awareness, the more aware you are, the more choice points you have. For example, if you are at a buffet, and you look at all of your options. You might decide between salmon or chicken, rice or quinoa and perhaps something from the salad bar. At this level, it’s easy to see that there’s a lot of conscious choices. Where it might get a little bit more challenging though is when it comes to desserts. Your mind might start to conflict with thoughts like: “I really shouldn’t eat any of that sugary stuff. I’ve been eating healthy lately and want to stick with it” or “I deserve it! I’ve been eating so strictly lately that I feel it’s time for a treat”. All of a sudden, you’re loading up a plate full of the nanaimo bars, carrot cake and some little fluffy thing with whipped cream on top. What caused you to choose the desserts? Perhaps, It’s an emotional response linked to early conditioning around being rewarded for hard work. It’s an old, familiar behaviour lurking in the recess of your mind. Choices at these levels are fairly easy to recognize, but what about when your subconscious is running an automatic program?

“Our lives are a sum total of the choices we have made” – Wayne Dyer 

Although this statement is true, it doesn’t acknowledge that many of our so-called choices are made subconsciously. We’ve all been conditioned through our up-bringing, culture and society. Our conditioning becomes a subconscious program that runs automatically. 

“William James, considered by many to be the father of American psychology, observed that when certain actions or processes are performed with some frequency, they eventually become automatic… Once sufficiently rehearsed, they fade into the unconscious”. (1)

We are all exposed to early childhood trauma, losses and fear. These experiences become locked in our nervous system and cause us to react or trigger when certain situations arise in the future. Which is the reason why I became scared when Dad raised his voice. That moment triggered childhood memories of me getting in trouble and being sent to my room for punishment.

“Our past has everything to do with our present” – Lynn Sumida. 

Our past experiences and the knowledge we’ve gathered, filters the way we perceive the present moment. This directly influences our conscious and even more so our unconscious choices. In my coaching practice, I regularly see everyday scenarios like the example between my Dad and I that triggered coping patterns and created disconnection. How about more difficult scenarios, with behaviours like self-sabotage, chronic worrying, depression or substance abuse? What deep rooted trauma and pain might be behind these behaviours?

I think we tend to forget how many unconscious factors are at play in people’s lives. Have you ever quietly judged a homeless person or an addict thinking you would never end up that way? The truth is we do not know and could never know the totality of the experiences that led them to this outcome. Statements like “You always have a choice”, can be used negatively toward ourselves or others. In essence, we can weaponize choice and turn it into an unlovingly arrogant stance that says: “If I were you, I would make better choices. I wouldn’t do the things you do”, or “if I were a better person I wouldn’t make these poor choices”. This does not mean we are not responsible for our actions; we definitely are. But, that doesn’t mean we are consciously and purposefully aware of all the choices we are making. 

When someone is triggered or metaphorically drowning, can we stop judging them as making poor choices? (Somehow, implying they actually want to suffer). Can we recognize that when someone is hurting or afraid, it will likely trigger an unconscious coping mechanism to help them deal with their pain. Sometimes, that could mean showing up angrily and lashing out or self-medicating. What they really want is for someone to be there for them, to understand they are doing their best and help them find healing.  All humans are innately wired for good. It’s our conditioning, traumas, losses and false identifications that mis-direct us away from our naturally loving, compassionate nature, and into the separateness of fear and ego.

“Be kind always for everyone is fighting a difficult battle.” – A Course in Miracles 

How do you gain more choices? 

If you want to have more choices and options, you need to become more self aware. You must learn ways to not only see yourself, but see others and situations with more clarity and understanding. 

How do you increase your awareness?

  1. Slow down – pause – take a breath – become present with the moment
  2. Assess yourself – Check-in with yourself –  What state of mind are you currently in?
  3. Share – Take a risk to be vulnerable and speak your truth from a place of self-responsibility.
  4. Feedback – Who do you trust, that is knowledgeable on the topic, to get feedback from?
  5. Other perspectives – What are other points of views, other possibilities? What else could be happening?
  6. Intentions – Set your intentions ahead of time. “How do you want to show up?”
  7. Reflect on your day – recapitulate your daily events to discover when you were aligned with your intentions or not. 

Jeff Brown

Jeff is a mindset coach who works mostly with men. He helps clients learn and implement tools that dramatically change a person’s life by increasing awareness, self responsibility and willingness that leads to action. His custom, one on one coaching, deals directly with getting people unstuck so that they can achieve personal success. For more information check out.  

(1)- Valentina Stoycheva – June 19, 2019 – Psychotherapy / The Unconscious Mind


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