Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Life Is A Choice

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 27, 2013

People say they are stuck when they really mean they do not like their choices. Karina, sixty-one, is unhappily married, frustrated with taking care of her elderly parents, while at the same time frustrated that she is paying for her grandchildren’s private education. “You have options,” I say, helping her to see that what she sees as fixed decisions are really ways in which she chooses to be in her world. She does not have to take care of her elderly parents, but she would tell you quickly that she would feel very guilty if she did not. “Well, that is different, ” I tell her. Feeling cornered is different from feeling like there is no way out. Managing her guilt would help her make more conscious decisions about where she wants to draw boundaries with her parents. This is a vastly altered picture than saying “I have no choice.” The latter is a way in which Karina does not have to think about how hard her choices are. In one way, it might sound unsympathetic of me to not connect with her about the burden of elderly parents, but on the other hand, taking care of can mean so many things to so many people, that each individual must find the way that makes sense for him or her. Without the thought of choices we lapse into victim-hood which leaves us feeling self-pity, with little hope of change. “What if I went to work to feed my family, would you tell me I have a choice?” Karina asks me, trying to convince me that some situations are fixed. “Of course, you have a choice about how to make money, and whether or not you want to go on public assistance.” I say, knowing that going on public assistance is so repugnant to her, that she does not consider this an option. The ability to sit with these difficult options creates maturity that allows Karina to reflect that even in the midst of hard choices, she still has the power to write the story of her life. No one has to write it for her.

9 Responses to “Life Is A Choice”

  1. Ashana M said

    Our inability to exert conscious control over some of our actions continues to puzzle and frustrate us. Yes, we do always have choices, but we don’t always make choices that seem to make rational sense. Her guilty feelings are working on her in ways that occur outside of her awareness and are outside of her control. She knows enough to understand that she feels guilty, but not why the guilty feelings are so powerful–she didn’t choose to have them, and she didn’t choose for the shut-down in conscious decision-making that seemed to follow afterward. In a sense, her conscious mind is complaining about what the rest of her mind is doing. Yes, it is stuck–in the passenger seat. Sometimes that happens. But what can she get out of the ride?

    • She can move to the driver’s seat, with a lot of effort. Thanks.

      • Ashana M said

        The problem isn’t really that she’s not in control or that she doesn’t have choices. The problem is that she’s unhappy. We are really not very good at affective forecasting. This is partly that our culturally acquired beliefs about what will make us happy are incorrect. Dan Gilbert claims that societies have a vested interest in deceiving its members about what will make us happy, and that seems reasonable to me. One of our false beliefs about happiness is that choices will make us happy, but they don’t–which is probably why she’s falling back on her feeling of not having choices as the source of our unhappiness. But she is likely to remain just as unhappy if she does have more choices than she is now. I’m just suggesting she skip some wasted time.

        • Thanks for introducing me to Dan Gilbert. As a social psychologist he has a very different, and interesting, perspective. I do not think choices make us happy, but choices do give us a feeling of control, however limited, and this feeling of control, can contribute to self-esteem.

          • Ashana M said

            Since positive self-esteem is a culturally-specific value, I’m not really convinced that self-esteem is innately importance to happiness either. People who see themselves as below-average elsewhere (a cognitive bias in non-Western cultures) are just as happy as people who see themselves as above-average here (a cognitive bias in Western cultures). The cause of our difficulties would seem to lie elsewhere. I suspect our pursuit of positive self-esteem is another misconception of ours. But we shall see.

  2. Shelly said

    Sometimes the “choices” you are talking about are both awful, meaning that they are not really choices. It makes the person having the make that choice feel like they are being ripped apart. Does one put one’s parents in an old-age home when the parents beg their child not to…or does one give one’s child up for adoption or foster care because the mother simply can’t afford financially care or physically to care for the child. Is that really a choice? You say that making a “choice” brings maturity, implying that not making this excruciating choice keeps one in infancy. Yes, it does sound to me as if, in this blog, the writer is unsympathetic to other people’s plight.

    • Oh, how can I fix this issue? I feel sympathetic to the lousy choices which face many people, at many times in their lives, but I still want to emphasize that within these terrible choices are decisions, which can be made, which can help navigate these very tight passages. For example, putting one’s parents in a nursing home, at first, may seem like a horrible abandonment and a dismissal of their desires, but, sometimes, this choice yields a positive outcome and a better quality of life. Similarly, giving a child up for adoption, sounds wrenching, which of course, it is, but at the same time, I have seen how difficult decisions such as this one, in the long-run, yields a pride in that decision, given the circumstances at the time. So, in the moment, the choices do not feel like a “choice,” but in retrospect, these decision points define our lives. Another example-many physicians feel they had “no choice” other than to go to medical school, as this is what their parents insisted on. Yet, upon reflection, they realize they did have a choice, but they did not analyze all of their options at the time. So, what felt like “no choice” was really a means to say they did not want to think more deeply about this decision. I know this last example does not address your point that sometimes choice A and choice B both involve a great deal of suffering, but to choose, to consciously be aware of the options, is a good coping skill. Continuing with more examples, many people feel “stuck” in their marriages, when, in fact, they do not want to ponder changing their life, and all of the challenges that go along with that. I think we can all agree that in a free society, no one is “stuck” in a marriage, but they might feel that staying married is their best option. Having a “best option” is a very different mindset from feeling stuck. So, in summary, I understand wrenching choices, but I want to say that a wrenching choice is different than being in a stuck place.

  3. Jon said

    Yes, life is a choice, or at least a choice out of a set of choices. Sometimes it is a very hard choice, and sometimes is it filled with choices that see unacceptable. The title of a 1940 Robert A. Heinlein story “Solution Unsatisfactory” may well resonate too well in the ear. That said, by thinking about what may be unsatisfactory, one may eventually come up with a solution that has a modicum of satisfaction. All constraints must be considered even if it would be highly unpalatable to remove those constraints.

    • Thanks, Jon. The issue that I propose is that a lot of the constraints are unconscious, and hence, without an attempt to look at the unconscious, decisions are made without all of the information. In essence, this explains the common question, “how did I get myself into this?’ Thanks.

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