Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Mind The Gap - Why Politicians (and You) Do Have A Choice

As the world continues to be concerned about the fragile situation in Gaza, you may well have heard the Israeli Prime Minister explain his government's actions with this: “...Hamas leaves us no choice but to expand and intensify the campaign against it.”

Aside from your political or moral stance on the issue, is there anything about the words that strikes you? “I had no choice” is such a staple part of our language that it largely goes unnoticed. I've said it, you've said it. In fact we hear it all the time. What's interesting is that it's such an old chestnut that it should have been thrown on the fire a long time ago. The reason? It's simply not true.

The truth lies in the following bit of cognitive behavioural science: between stimulus and response there is a gap. In that gap lies your ability to choose. In practical terms it means that you don't have to do the first thing that comes into your head or the thing that you've always done or the thing that everyone wants you to do. You can choose how to respond.

You're driving down a road near where you live. A car cuts you up badly. You may well vent your anger at the other driver, beep the horn madly and shout expletives in their direction. However, if you're driving in a fairly notorious area at night and the car that cuts you up is full of young men drinking beer and has very loud music emanating from it, then you may decide that the car's occupants are not people with whom you want to get into an argument. You stay calm. Congratulations, you have just demonstrated that choosing your response is possible.

In cognitive behavioural therapy, that gap is seen as the pause where you can reflect on your beliefs about an incident or event. In the first example, you perhaps believe that the other driver is driving dangerously and that he or she should not be allowed to get away with it. In the second, although you may believe the same, you also believe that the driver may pose even more danger to you if you respond angrily. Comparing the two examples shows that we do have the ability to choose a response. That choice can be widened further depending on our belief about the incident. Is the driver distracted by some serious event in their life? Is it an incident of which we have also been guilty from time to time? Was the incident so bad or are we particularly stressed today? There are many beliefs we can attach to an event such as this and the point is we can choose which one takes precedence.

Viktor Frankl realised the existence of this gap in the concentration camps when he suggested that the freedom to choose one's attitude was the last of the human freedoms. This epiphany of his made an enormous impression on me when I first read it over ten years ago. However, it is only recently that I have become aware that the response which one can choose goes much further than attitude.

You can classify responses at a basic level into a choice
  • for a thing e.g. attitude
  • to do something e.g. to take control back of a situation
  • to be something e.g. to be positive
I have already detailed some of the instances of the above in previous posts but an absolutely extraordinary example of the choices that exist in that gap between stimulus and response came from Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned in 1964. From that time onwards he chose not to hate his oppressors any more. He chose forgiveness and reconciliation. He chose peace above war despite everything he had previously experienced and believed. He chose to allow his jailers to see him as a human being and for him to see them as human too. He didn't do what he had been conditioned to do. He didn't do what his followers wanted him to do. He realised that he could do things differently.

This is why this freedom to choose is the over-arching concept in surviving and thriving in adversity. It is the most important piece of knowledge we possess because all our other strategies flow from it. If we can learn to recognise the beliefs we attach to events and reflect on them in that gap then we can use so many other tools to thrive. The point is that we can choose the responses which help us best and not the ones that keep us in negative patterns.

The example from my own life which is most memorable was after an argument with a member of my wider family. The other person, believing they were in the right, carried that argument with them for a couple of days afterwards and their mood was badly affected. I remember choosing to not let that person's mood affect me for those two days and that decision was a liberating one as it meant that I, and only I, was in control of my emotions and feelings. I try to teach my daughters to choose between being in a bad mood or a good mood after they have been told off or after they have argued. Sometimes it works!

If we're met with bad news or on-going tough times, then think about all the ways that you can respond to what is happening. It doesn't have to be the conventional thing to do or the first thing that you think of. Often there are lots of possible choices. Even where it seems there is only an either/or choice, then it is still a choice.

Imagine being the victim of another incident on the road. Will you say next time, just like the politicians, you had no choice in your response? Or, armed with your new knowledge, will you choose a different path, one which serves you and the other driver better?

There is so much potential in realising you have a choice and it makes life just a little bit more exciting, don't you think?

Branch, Rhena and Willson, Rob: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies; John Wiley and Sons 2nd Edition 2010

Frankl, Viktor; Man's Search for Meaning; Pocket 1997

Sampson, Anthony; Mandela: The Authorized Biography; Vintage 2000

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