“I have no choice!”

How many times have I heard someone say that!  I used to work at a place where many came in saying they had no choice. They were court mandated to do a six month alcohol/drug treatment program. I used to agree with them– “Oh, that’s too bad. You have no choice but to do our program.” What we were both buying into was that it was terrible of the court to trap this poor guy into doing what he didn’t want to do. Then one day a guy came in & I was in a  more flippant mood, and I told him, “Sure you have a choice. You can always go to jail. But this is way better.”   I once had a talk with a probation officer and said that none of these guys really wanted to get sober, they just wanted to stay out of jail. The P.O. surprised me by saying, “Actually ninety  percent of ’em take time over treatment.”  Later I met a guy who’d done 22 months in San Quentin over one year in treatment.  The  facts supported what the P.O. had said.

Much, much later I realized that not only did they all have a choice, it was such a clear choice to them that they couldn’t really imagine the alternative. And since I’ve been working with a wider array of problems that face people in their lives, I’ve recognized the same mechanism at work in many lives, including my own. Sometimes we have a choice between something we want– a new job we’ve been offered, say, and unemployment– something we’re trying to get away from. That’s a no-brainer, but we don’t tell ourselves, “I have no choice,” we tell ourselves, “What a good choice!” It’s  when we end up with a choice between two (or more) alternatives and don’t like any of them– but one of them is so much better than the other(s) that it’s a complete no-brainer that we say we have no choice.  In reality the choice is so blindingly clear that we lose sight of all the other possibilities– because no matter how bad our first choice may be, the others are  worse.  But there’s always a choice.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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