Making Choices – An Essential Component of Mental Health

Free stock photo of decision, doors, doorway, choices

 We are always making choices, big and small ones. We make them all day and throughout our lives. Choices are crucial to our happiness and well being; from choosing our friends, partner and occupation, to choosing what we want and how we will go about getting it in a particular situation. The people I meet with often have made bad choices. They have chosen an unsuitable partner or occupation. They have chosen a way of life that is governed by stress and anxiety. They have chosen ways of being and habits that can lead them to addiction, depression and difficult relationships with others. In most cases they think they are making positive choices, but they are not. These people have lost the ability to make wise choices. How is this ability lost?

When we first come into the world we are quite clear about what we want and don’t want. We are fully connected to our needs and wants and can express these quite easily. In other words we are born with the ability to make choices because there is clarity within us about choosing the people and things around us. However, over time this natural capacity becomes infiltrated by other people’s needs and wants. As Alice Miller, the noted psychiatrist and author, puts it, we become ‘prisoners of love’. As infants we are dependent on our parents for our needs. A basic need is to love and be loved. However, love is rarely unconditional, even at this stage of life. We are given messages by our parents that certain things we do or express are acceptable or not acceptable to them. These messages can be subtle or overt. Over the years researchers have visually recorded interactions between mothers and babies. One thing that is seen is the way mothers can control the emotional expressions of their babies (however this varies according to the emotional health and awareness of the individual mother). For example, if the baby shows anger and the mother disapproves, her face and body language will convey this. Right away the child is being told what to feel and what not to feel. The infant realizes that the price for showing the forbidden emotion or behaviour is withdrawal of love and that is too much to bear. What eventually results is that the new person will cut themselves off from what is inside them that is forbidden. Over time they become fragmented beings who have become separated from essential parts of their selves. Because of this lack of integration, our ability to know what we want or what is good for us becomes compromised. Furthermore, as we develop, the society around us tells us what we should choose and not choose, and so we become further divorced from our own selves’ ability to think and choose for ourselves. It is no wonder then that my clinical practice is filled with people who have made bad choices that have cost them dearly.

As the person and I look over the course of their life we generally see childhood environments where it was impossible for them to gain a proper sense of self that could ensure the ability to choose. For instance, if they are children of alcoholic parents, they find themselves surrounded by people who are very restrictive about feelings and thoughts. They often learn that people are unable to possess their own beings and can become codependent as a result. Furthermore, if people suffered childhood abuse they were dramatically given the message that they were bad. Therefore they learned to distrust themselves and, as a result, cannot make good choices. For these reasons, much of the therapy I practice consists of helping a person understand how he or she became separated from themselves. We look at family history to reconstruct part of the story. We also try to help the person reconnect with their true feelings and thoughts. Because, even though we may lose a sense of these, they are still there somewhere within us. The difficulty and time of the process will depend on how deeply the person has buried themselves. They may be buried under years of self denial in the form of addiction, depression, negative jobs or relationships and often great stress and anxiety.

It can, and often is, hard work to reclaim yourself and reconnect to what you truly want or don’t want in life. Nevertheless, there is no more rewarding work. Because, when choices are informed by true connection to the self they are good choices and life enhancing ones.