Choice Theory and You

What could Choice Theory mean for you and the way you live your life?

We choose almost everything!

Dr. Glasser claimed that we choose almost everything we do.  We don’t realise this of course.  We do not live from moment to moment weighing up the pros and cons of every action and then making a decision.  Most of our decisions are automatic, the result of long established habits in our lives.

Right now you might be sitting there with your legs crossed.  Did you choose to cross them?  Well, you probably did not make a very conscious decision but in the heel of the hunt it was you who crossed your legs.  You chose to do it.

Of course, we do not choose what happens to us.  If someone shouts at you or bumps into your car, you did not choose that.  Neither did you choose the last illness you had or the bad weather we had last week.  Our basic reflexes, such as a sneeze, are not choices either.

  • ACTIVITY: Jot down the first few choices you made today.  These might surprise you.  If you could have chosen something else then you were making a choice!

Dealing with problems!

When something goes wrong, our power to decide becomes more important.  The problem may be that people are not treating us well, we may have constant conflicts with someone, our finances may be in chaos, we may simply feel ovecome by confusion.  Whatever the situation, Glasser claims we have a choice.  That does not mean we know what to choose.  It does not mean we know what the solution is or even what the problem is.  Even if we identify the problem and know what will solve it, we might not know how to go about this.  Still, we have a choice.  That is a very important realisation.

Put another way, the next step starts with ourselves.  We could decide to do nothing at all or to take a particular course of action or even to seek help from someone else.  We could even choose to fuss and be bothered.  We have a choice.


A word that describes how we deal with our lives is “behaviour”.  We are always behaving whether we are sleeping, sitting down, driving a car, planting flowers, reading a book, kissing someone … it’s all behaviour!  Choice Theory psychology offers an interesting analysis of our behaviour, a view that can help us manage it even better.

Choice Theory sees behaviour as made up of four principal parts: doing, thinking, feeling and physiology (what goes on in our bodies).  According to Glasser, these four parts are inseparable although we tend to identify a given behaviour in terms of its most obvious component.

If, for example, I am walking along the street, the doing is obvious.  Walking.  At the same time I am thinking, maybe about where I am going or the health benefits of walking or that I am late for an appointment.  Feeling is also in operation.  I might be feeling cold, puffed out, envigorated … or worried about that appointment.  Meanwhile my physiology is also participating in this behaviour that is described simply as “walking”.  My pulse is probably higher than normal, my blood pressure could be lower and I might even sweat a little.

Feelings are signals!

When things do not go so well the first warning we get tends to be from the feeling department.  We feel pain, sadness, fear, worry … Indeed there is a whole host of negative feelings we might experience.  Similarly when things are running well we get positive feelings: happy, ecstatic, wonderment, joy.

  • ACTIVITY: Make two lists, one of all the negative feelings you can think of and one of all the positive feelings.

Negative feelings are uncomfortable.  They are in fact meant to be uncomfortable.  They are signals telling us that something is wrong.  They are comparable to a fire alarm that tells us there is a fire.  The problem is not the fire alarm; the problem is the fire!  When we get feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, pain, the problem is not the feeling; the problem is the issue that gave rise to the feeling.

We have a natural tendency to get rid of the negative feeling and this makes perfect sense.  The only healthy way to do this is to get rid of whatever caused that feeling.  We might take a tablet to ease the feeling of physical pain but unless we remove the cause of the pain, the negative feeling will return.  The fire alarm is not saying “Listen to me” or “Stop me”; it is saying, “Heed me”, “Do something”.  It is the same with our negative feelings.  We need to learn to interpret our feelings more accurately, seeing them as signals for action.

  • ACTIVITY: Recall some recent negative feelings you have experienced and list these together with the situation that gave rise to them.

Blaming, Complaining and Nagging

There’s another tendency we have, one that is not so helpful.  When we get negative feelings we often try to blame someone else, even the government sometimes!  In fact, there are several habits we have where we focus on external explanations for our problems.  Even if the cause is external, the solution starts with ourselves.

Making a change

If negative feelings are telling us to do something, where do we start?  This brings us to another aspect of Glasser’s four-way analysis of behaviour.  If we are going to change something, the easiest parts of our behaviour to change are the doing and thinking.  If we change any one component of our behaviour, all the others change also.  Indeed, if we have a problem, we normally need to “do” something about it anyway.  Neither our feelings nor our physiology will change the world!

The way we think about things can make a difference too.  If someone is doing their level best to insult me I can think my way to a different attitude to this.  So we get a feeling that is telling us that things are not going well, we find out what needs to be different and we make changes by changing our doing and/or thinking.

  • ACTIVITY: Go back to the list from the previous activity, choose one issue and decide now to make a small feasable change, something you can do about it.

An example

Sally has not been feeling very well in recent times.  In fact she has been quite depressed.  She still manages to go to work but spends the week-ends in bed.  Her mother experienced a lot of depression too and Sally believes it’s something in her genes, a biological defect she has inherited.  There’s not much she can do about it.

Then a friend tells her about Choice Theory.  She does not agree with everything she hears and still clings to her biological inheritance view but something clicks.  No matter what she believes, no matter what is the nature of her problem, she can do something about it.  It starts with her.  She has visited doctors and others and nothing much has changed.  There’s not a lot she can do but she chooses to make one small change, something that is within the realms of the possible.

She decides to get up at 11 next Saturday morning.  It’s not early but it’s better than what she was doing and there’s something definite about it.  She plans to go down to the beach and paddle along the foreshore, something that brings back happy memories of her childhood.  It’s not a massive change but it’s a change and it’s one of her choosing.  She knows she can go back to bed afterwards if she wishes.  She knows her plan is doable though she realises that she will find it hard to kickstart herself on Saturday.

The walk brings its surprises.   As she pushes her feet through the cool  surf she suddenly bursts into tears and her head fills with one image, her Mum.  She lost her mother a year ago and this is the first time the full impact has had a chance to surface.  Up to that moment Sally had understandably been protecting herself, pulling back from a pain she could not cope with.  Her thoughts now filled with the very valid reason for her profound sadness, her wish to withdraw from life and hide in her bedroom.  The negative feelings made sense even if that realisation did not lessen their pain.

She was on the point of giving up her walk, on the point of heading for home and bed to hide her tears but to her own surprise something in her wanted to remain in that painful moment and she chose to stay there with the image of her mother so present to her.  It began to make sense to push onward through the surf, to walk where her mother had walked with her before, to keep going.  There is not very much a person can do with the major tragedy that is the loss of a loved one.  But Sally began to realise that in her own grief she had avoided her brother and his interest in attending to their mother’s grave.  Sally simply had not been ready for that.  Now she began to look in that direction and by the time she finished her walk along that beach she had decided to call her brother to make plans for the headstone.  It was as if her sadness now had a name and it was a familiar name.  She could live with that, she thought, she could choose to live with that.

There is no such thing as a typical case.  Sally was lucky but she had chosen to give luck a chance.  The change in her doing had helped bring about a change in her thinking.  She was fortunate too in being able to sort things out for herself.  Her grief was still enormous but she could now carry it forward instead of avoiding it.


Choosing to paddle in the ocean



Choice Theory offers you a different way to see how you manage your own life.  You can always choose to do or think something differently from the past.  To conclude, we offer you a summary of the Choice Theory approach to solving a problem.

  1. My negative feelings are useful signals, telling me that my life is not going as I wish.
  2. Only I can choose to remedy the situation.  Change starts with me, my choice!
  3. What might be troubling me? What is it that I am not getting the way I want?
  4. If I continue in my present choices, will anything change?
  5. If I cannot pinpoint the cause of my feelings, is there someone who might help me do that?
  6. If I cannot come up with a good plan to remedy the situation, is there someone who might help me do that?
  7. If I need new skills or knowledge to solve the problem, do I need help from someone to learn these?
  8. After I consider my options, which one do I choose to act on?
  9. Can I make a plan that is feasible, clear and positive?
  10. Later, I can evaluate the success of my plan and choose any adjustments needed.
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