How often in your life do you think the words, “Ugh. I have to do this,” feeling totally beholden to your situation. That all-too common feeling locks us into our obligation-victim-self, and once we’re there, the only way out we see is to change, remove, or delete the entire situation. But, here’s the magic: You have the power and potential to pull yourself out of that whole with one simple ingredient. Choice is the trap door out of the victim space, the way to step into your life with full empowerment.
So often, when we feel stuck, unexcited, lost, or held back by our situation, we close ourselves off by leaning into the feelings of powerlessness. We accept the reality that everything is happening to us, without our permission, and we have to react, respond, or resist. And often, we react, respond, and resist in really negative ways, with the mindset that there’s no way forward.
Take this example, which I’m sure you can relate to: getting up in the morning.
I’ve been working on getting up between 5:30 and 6am every day so that I can do yoga, meditate, exercise, or all 3 in before the day heads in its many directions. This morning, my alarm went off at 5:45am, and every cell in my being went “OMG NO PLEASE KEEP SLEEPING.” I gave into that little voice, and quickly shifted my second alarm (Due to one unfortunate time about 7 years ago when my alarm didn’t go off, I do not trust wake-up technology, so I have to set both a physical alarm clock and also my phone in case either fails) to 6:30 and rolled over, employing the ever-useful tactic of bargaining with myself that I’ll do yoga tomorrow, and the other myriad of excuses that my sleep-brain throws at me.
In the following 2 minutes that I laid there after the alarm jolt, I thought: “Man, isn’t it great that I have the choice right now to go back to sleep?” And in that instant, I was awake.
It was the power of choice. Getting up to workout felt like an obligation, and saying no to it was a choice. Going back to sleep was a decision I made, giving into the impulse of my sleep-brain (which is far less motivated than my awake-brain). As soon as I reframed the obligation into a choice, my brain shifted from “I have to do this” to “I have a choice to do this.”
Notice that distinction: I HAVE to do this vs. I HAVE A CHOICE to do this.
A lot of coaches and inspirational folks will ask you to reframe those obligations as “get to” pieces of joy, to help you see everything more positively. Jenn’s sleep-brain (and usually my awake-brain) is a little too cynical to see the joy of working out when it’s dark and not yet 6am... even though I do enjoy doing it. That’s the power of the sleep-brain! I really like and value yoga, meditation, and fitness, and yet trying to tell myself “Yay! I get to do this!” at 5:45am is just straight up lying.
Instead of trying to reframe the whole ordeal into something magical and positive, I just reframe it as a choice. A valueless choice.
As Gretchen Rubin so astutely summarized in Better than Before, we tend to fall into four major categories that determine how likely we are to do something that we might view as an obligation. My natural-state self falls squarely in the “Questioner” camp, with a hint of “Rebel,” which means that without a lot of effort or awareness, I’m only going to do something if I believe it’s a good idea for me, personally ... and if everyone else thinks it’s a good idea, I’ll automatically question that belief a little harder before deciding.
The alarm going off is basically an obligation that my last-night-self set for my morning-self because previous-day-me wants today-me to be a better, more active person. But sleep-brain-me (there are a lot of us in there fighting for space) says, “This feels awfully like an obligation that not-me set, and I’m going to question it and possibly rebel, depending on my mood.” And sleep-me is ALWAYS in a very specific mood.
Knowing that about myself, I like to give myself choices to change activities that feel like obligations (like waking up before dawn) into situations where I’m the one with the power.
Again, notice the words there. Activities that feel like obligations. Our brain does a great job of letting us believe that we don’t have any power, that we have to do things out of guilt, shame, fear, or one of the many other coercive feelings. But there’s always another layer under what we assume is reality -- the real truth beneath the perceived “story.” And the truth is that we always have a choice.
Sometimes that choice is in how we respond. Maybe we really do have to get up when the alarm goes off, and so we can choose to do it. That’s the harder kind of choice. That choice requires you to dig into your well of integrity and act in the way that prior-day you, or the you-who-created-the-life-you-have has set up for you. And when you’re just starting to adjust your thoughts and behavior to be the best version of yourself, previous-you might have set current-growth-oriented-you up for some really undesirable shit.
One of the ways we can help ourselves grow is to adjust our environment to support our flourishing. Like giving a plant a bigger pot and better soil so it can thrive, making changes that encourage (or at the very least don’t hinder) us to act as our best selves makes actually being that way a lot easier.
Since if I know that I have a hard time getting up the morning, I give myself a choice. I set my alarm earlier than necessary to get in the workout, and much earlier than necessary if I’m not working out, and then I frame that buffer as a choice. If, in that buffer zone, I decide not to workout, there might still be some bargaining with myself that I’ll do it later, or tomorrow, or just not at all. But the buffer zone also empowers me to be able to make the choice. I can hem and haw over it for a few minutes without the pressure and without allowing me to default to the excuse that because I didn’t decide right away, I wasted 5 minutes, and now I only have 40 minutes to workout, and by the time I get dressed and brush my teeth and go downstairs, I’ll only have 30 minutes, and really, what’s the point? The buffer takes away my “there’s no point now” excuse.
It takes my “I have to do this right now” to “I have the choice to do this, and I have a few minutes to think about it.”
While I’m still choosing to workout for all the same reasons I was when I set the alarm, I’m no longer feeling at the total behest of my previous-self. By giving myself a choice, I’ve empowered my current-self (the only self that really matters) to make it.
Consider something in your life that feels like a complete obligation, a place where you find yourself resisting and feeling resentful and powerless. How might you shift the environment to one that gives you a choice in the matter? From “I have to do this” to “I have a choice to do this.” It might setting your alarm a few minutes earlier, bringing more than one lunch option so you don’t abandon the one you brought when it seems unappealing at noon, scheduling a few more breaks in your day so you can choose not to be in a rush, or getting a second opinion.
Once you’ve adjusted your environment, give yourself the space to enjoy the empowered feeling of your choice. Revel in it. Actually say out loud, “I have a choice here!” Rewiring our brains from the obligation-victim mindset takes practice and patience, and the reinforcement of positive thoughts bolsters our internal landscape. It’s like an extra boost to your choice buffer.
Exclaim it! “I have a choice!” And believe it, because you have the choice to believe empowering things, and that’s a choice that you absolutely want to take.