Reflections on living a life of choices, as opposed to a life of forced moves
written by Dr. Anna Braverman
One of the cornerstones of mindful living is living a life where we make conscious choices and then take responsibility for the choices we have made. The opposite of this is a type of existence where we let life happen to us and experience our life circumstances as inevitable. Often this kind of living leads to feeling trapped in some way.
Learning to open up to the possibility that we have choices when it comes to the big picture circumstances of our life (like our relationships, work, health, etc.) can be a lifelong process and often becomes an important theme in therapy. But what about what seemingly is the minutia of our lives? What about the myriad daily tasks we perform, the small promises we make, the emails we send, the tiny insidious turns of phrase that roll off our tongue multiple times a day? I have been reflecting on the fact that we often don’t treat these small occurrences as real actions, and therefore often do not treat them as worthy of mindful consideration. However, I have come to reflect that these small habits, despite, and maybe even because, they are so small and so easily able to fly under the radar, have the power to train our brains to turn in a certain direction – to view the world through a certain lens. In particular, I have been reflecting on how our mundane choice have the power to turn us toward, or away from, a stance of active choosing in our lives.
All of this sounds a bit abstract, so let me illustrate:
Let’s use the example of a simple email. Suppose you have been asked to join some optional activity at work and you are crafting a reply to indicate that you will not be attending. Now think of the first opening phrase that pops in your mind. For many people, the go-to opening sentence would sound something like this:
“Thank you very much for your invitation. I would love to attend your event, but unfortunately I am unable to attend….”
This is a great way to reply to an email – if it were true. However, hidden in this sentence is a message that you have NO CHOICE but to skip the event, that you are SORRY about that, and that if you COULD attend, you certainly WOULD. In other words, that you are a victim of circumstances that are keeping you from what you want to do. However, what if the actual truth, if you allowed yourself a moment of honest reflection, is that you have no interest in that event, that you would rather not take time to attend it, and that if you really wanted to be there you would have been able to swing it – you simply are choosing not to.
Now, one might ask, “So what? What would be the harm in writing a polite email and making someone else feel good? It’s only a small, innocuous white lie – everybody does it!”
That may be true. But I have been reflecting that the danger of getting used to communicating like this is that the first one to get this message is our own brain. The person getting the email will soon forget all about it, but our own brain, through constant repetition, becomes imprinted with the idea that there is no such thing as WILL NOT – there is only CAN NOT. Put simply – if you become subconsciously convinced that the only way to bow out of a lunch meeting is by having a massive headache, your body can certainly deliver one for you.
In my own life, I have been practicing using more honest and choice-based communications, that are still perfectly polite. For example:
Other situations where this becomes relevant include: