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It's your choice

I've recently been re-reading Stephen Covey's 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People'.

One of the most compelling ideas he outlines is a phrase first made popular by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish Psychiatrist:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

You might be aware that Frankl came up with this idea while imprisoned in a Nazi death camp. There, he was subject to inhumane conditions and made to perform acts no human should ever force another human to perform.

When he felt like all his freedom had been taken, he realised that even in the midst of the horrific situation, he had the power to choose his response.

I have had clients make similar realisations, when they say to me something like: "I've just realised that only I can really change my attitude." Sometimes this is such a disappointment for people! They enter therapy hoping the psychologist will hold the keys to their recovery. However, it can also be incredibly empowering as they realise they really do have the power to choose.

This is particularly applicable to the relationship we have with our thoughts. Automatic negative thoughts pop into our head all the time. In CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) parlance, we can then choose to accept those thoughts as true, or challenge their validity. We can bring evidence that contradicts these negative thoughts and choose to adopt thoughts more reflective of reality.

Sometimes, however, these negative thoughts are true! Think of a parent whose child has just received a diagnosis of Intellectual Disability. Perhaps the parents thinks 'They probably won't achieve well at school'. This thought may be accurate. When this is the case, it is sometimes helpful to bring in strategies from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which focuses on not whether the thought is true, but whether it is helpful in living within ones values.

That parent then has the power to choose whether that thought will assist them in setting realistic expectations of their child, or confine their child to a stereotype that will tempt the parent to give up all intervention for the child that may assist them. They may choose to let that thought stay and let it reinforce the idea of valuing the character of a child rather than their academic achievement, or they may choose to let it go and reinforce their value of optimism and belief in the innate capacity of their child to learn and grow regardless of intellectual ability.

Values are individual and so the choice of what we do with our thoughts, what thoughts we allow to stay and which ones we choose to let go of are individual as well. The key questions for individuals to ask in the space between stimulus and response are:

"Is this thought true?"

"Is it helpful?"

"Is it useful?"

"Will this thought take me in the direction of my values, or will it keep me stuck in negativity?"

If you are the one who can ultimately choose your response, it means you have the power to influence your future. Just like Frankl, you don't have to be a victim of circumstance. Now that's empowering!


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