When All Your Choices Are Bad

If anyone has been following this blog continuously, you will have read a previous post about this, but I’m trying to learn from my clients and update my metaphors.

The original story about dealing with all bad choices was simple: if you’re trapped on the third floor of a burning building you can jump out the window or get burned up. This story was inaccurate. I told it to a fire fighter who pointed out from his experience that when the flames get close enough, people always jump. I couldn’t argue with that!  This, of course, points out that no matter how bad your choices are, you still will be forced into some choice or another. So I updated my story as follows:

When you’re trapped on the third floor of a burning building, you will jump. BUT you still have choices. Look out the window. Can I maybe take a running jump and get to that tree? If I land on the roof of that parked car, the metal will crumple and break my fall. (I’ve met at least one person who survived a multi-story fall this way). If I jump blindly, I may land on a parking meter, which would be worse than straight pavement. So I still must choose the lesser among evils.

But enter a new client, who isn’t happy with my story. She points out that she wants the version of the story where the fire department comes and puts out the big thing that you can jump into safely, without hurting yourself. Fair enough– new story. Does it teach us anything, or are we just making up a happier story?

Well, I would suggest that the ability to make up a happier story is not to be scorned, but there’s also an excellent point about choices. In our new version of the story, I realize that I’m trapped on the third floor and IMMEDIATELY call the fire department. This gives them time to arrive and rescue me. The  point in this case is that the sooner we act when confronted with all bad choices, the more we can minimize the negative impact of the situation. I like that.

While I’m waiting, I still may have to consider the other, worse choices, but I’ve taken my best shot first. I can stay low to avoid smoke inhalation, I can work on maybe figuring out how to make a rope from bed sheets– all the backup plans. But I called 911 FIRST. I didn’t waste time pretending I didn’t need help.  I realized the seriousness of my predicament. I asked for the right kind of help as soon as I realized I needed it. There’s a lot to like in the new, updated version of the story. If you read this, J, thanks. I like the new story better, too.


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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