I want to talk about choices today. We all make choices every day. Many, many choices. Many of these are about minor things – cereal or toast for breakfast, which clothes to wear, which way to go to work. I don’t need to list them, your day is filled with so many.
The choices I want to talk about today are the ones that can affect our wellbeing. It’s taken nine years of therapy to realise that I can choose to do things that will help me feel better. I can only talk about this based on my own experiences. I think that what I’ll say here will come across as hugely simplified. I’m fully aware that the insight I now have is something that can take a long time to learn, and even longer to put into practice. I only want to share how helpful this insight is to me now.
Let me get you started with a description of a painfully chaotic situation. This is based on my personal experiences, but combined and tweaked in order to illustrate just how much the realisation of choice can change a situation.
I’m half way through a semester at university. I get an assignment back that I worked really hard on, and received a good grade – 70%. There’s room for improvement, but over all, a good grade. I read through the feedback on my essay, and although no comments are negative, I perceive them to be. I do my best not to think about it, try to focus on the good grade, but the negativity is building in my head. I get home and start crying. I feel overwhelmed. I start worrying that I’ll never finish university, that I won’t pass, that I’ll never get a “real job”. Those thoughts become truths in my mind. I reason that if I’ll never pass, and never finish university, that there is no point attending. Furthermore, if I’m never going to finish university and get a “real job”, then I might as well quit now. Given that that thought is now true in my mind, well, I might as well quit at life because there’s no point continuing if I can’t do what I want to do. Then the suicidal ideation starts and I rapidly spiral down into a pit of doom.
In this situation I have a choice. I can allow myself to go along with the negative thinking or I can choose to do things that prevent or lessen that downward spiral. If I was in the above situation again, I’d have a better idea of what to do. I could go along with the negative thinking knowing that it’s likely to involve chaos and crisis. The other option would be to do things that either lead away from the chaos, or lessen the chaos.
Actions that lead away from chaos can vary and include anything from distracting through to behaviours specific to the situation. Looking at the example above, there are a few things that come to mind. I could distract myself from the negative thinking which would slow the descent into chaos. I could seek reassurance from friends or members of my treating team and ask them to help me rationalise the negative thinking. Another option would be to do something that makes me laugh, smile, or feel happy. Creating positive emotions not only changes how I feel, but acts as a distraction as well.
With the insight and awareness I have of my thoughts and feelings, I’m able to turn around what once would have been a definite downward spiral. It’s taken a long time for me to gain this insight and awareness and even longer to be able to choose to prevent a decline in my wellbeing.
I do this on a regular basis now. I can realise that my thinking is unhelpful, what will happen if I don’t take action, and I can take do things to prevent chaos. I can pause, take a breath and realise that I have a choice. I can choose to do something that won’t necessarily fix the situation I’m in, but will potentially improve it. This means that I’m much more able to cope with the lemons (only little ones so far!) that life throws at me.
As I touched on earlier – this is hugely simplified. It’s taken me nine years of therapy (off and on, but mostly on) to get to where I am today. Realising I have a choice, and can make a choice to take care of myself is not only freeing, but empowering.
I’m 100% in control and choose how I react, and how I care for myself.