Who's driving the boat?

There is no word more important in life than “choice”, I argued in last week's Southern Star. The column is now online. 


"I can’t do it”, “I didn’t have time”, “I have to” – so many of the words we use imply our decisions are already made for us, that we have little if any choice in all kinds of matters. So here’s a question: who’s driving the boat?


That question is posed in Choice, a thought-provoking essay written by New York-based psychologist and CBT therapist Dr Steven Phillipson. In it, Phillipson relates how in India, very young elephants are trained to be compliant by being chained to a thick tree, thereby severely restricting their movements. The size of the tree and the thickness of the chain are gradually reduced as the elephant matures. By the time the elephant reaches adolescence, its handler is able to lead it around with only a thin stick and string. By now, the elephant could easily overpower its handler and free itself. However, because it associates the string and the stick with the chain and the tree that kept it restrained its entire life, it doesn’t even try to escape.


‘Since learning of this training method’, Dr Phillipson writes, ‘I have been haunted by the suspicion that we miss many of life’s opportunities for growth because of our blind adherence to the programming from our past’. All of us have been conditioned by our experiences in life and this can lead to us acting on autopilot rather than making active, mindful choices. 



Phillipson gives an example of his own, mentioning one occasion where he went with his wife to visit his mother. As soon as they walked in the door, his mother expressed displeasure at the amount of weight she believed he’d gained, saying he must ‘weigh over 200 pounds’. He disagreed only for his mother to grab his arm and lead him to a weighing scales, which he passively stepped on to. After seeing the reading, his mother looked satisfied by her accuracy of her judgment.


Afterwards, Phillipson’s wife pulled him aside, saying she was stunned at this passive compliance with his mother’s demands, reminding him he wouldn’t have accepted such demeaning treatment from anyone else. ‘I realised that it hadn’t even occurred to me to assert myself and resist being treated like a child’, he writes, adding he had been raised in such a way that he never questioned his mother’s authority.


‘In our lives, how many of the choices we make – or fail to question – are the products of this kind of conditioning?’ he asks. ‘It is essential that we become aware of our own possibilities and potential so that we can overcome such limitations. Without the inclination to test our self-limiting perceptions, we remain, like the subservient elephant, unaware of our potential freedom’.



Woman on mountain.
Owning your choices is key to living a richer and more honest life.

It’s not just that people are unaware of their potential freedom. Often, people actively reject the notion that alternatives are available. “I couldn’t get out of bed”, “I didn’t have the energy to do it”, “I can’t take the overwhelming anxiety I feel when I ignore the threat” – such comments are unhelpful and ‘self-limiting’, as Phillipson puts it. As a therapist, I wouldn’t respond to such comments unsympathetically, but I would suggest the person examine the words they are using. There is a big difference between saying “I found it very difficult to get out of bed” and “I couldn’t get out of bed”.


Now, all of us occasionally talk this way; who hasn’t uttered the words “I couldn’t find the time” to explain away inaction on our part? In truth, you’ll find some time hiding under the cushions of your living room couch, says Phillipson, adding: ‘Time is not found! It is allocated by one’s own choices’.


We are wired to seek safety and to avoid discomfort. Owning our choices, taking responsibility for our actions and inactions, accepting we cannot control much of what happens to us in life but we can choose how we respond – that brings its own challenges and it can be tempting to deny this freedom, to resort to the language of “must” and “have to”. Nevertheless, Steven Phillipson is right – in living a disciplined life, there is no word more important than “choice”.


Who’s driving the boat? You are.