Why do you answer the phone?

Because it rings, right?

Or, do you answer it because you want to talk to the person calling you?

Is all behavior purposeful, or are we simply responding to what is happening around us?

Let’s look at an example and see what we think.

A young woman, in her early twenties, was driving home from her first teaching job, fighting traffic. She stayed late at school planning for the next day and was starving, tired and really wanted to be at home. The person behind her was honking and inching forward until he was almost on her bumper. She was thinking a few choice words and wondering what the guy’s problem was. Didn’t he realize that everyone was anxious to get moving?

She raised her hand to give him a taste of his own medicine. She stopped with her hand in mid-air. What if it was one of her student’s parents? That would be so unprofessional, and the parent might recognize her. She put her hand down and took a deep breath.

What stopped this young lady from displaying an obscene gesture? She was angry and the guy behind her probably deserved it. What does her behavior tell us about why people do what they do?

We all have urges to behave, and typically our urge to behave is driven from a frustration signal. We behave because we want something. We might eat because we are hungry, or bored, or sad. We yell because we are angry or frustrated. We select our behavior from a recipe book of previous behaviors in our head in our best attempt to meet a need to calm the frustration signal.

So, if we behave to meet a need, and we select our behavior in our best attempt to meet that need, does that mean that the only person who has control over our behavior is ourselves? That is empowering! And a bit frightening—does it also mean that I cannot blame my behavior on how someone else is making me feel?  I am responsible for my own behavior all of the time? Woah, mind blown.

What about my feelings; who controls them? Sometimes, I feel sad when I don’t want to feel sad. Or mad, or stressed, on and on. How can I “control” my feelings?

Let’s go back to the young lady. Instead of reacting and making an irresponsible choice, she took a deep breath. What might happen if she then called her best friend? How might she start feeling? Do we think she would forget about the grumpy guy and enjoy the conversation with her friend? Or, what if she turned on her favorite song and started to sing along—how would she feel then?

We do not have direct control over our feelings, but we do have indirect control. How we behave and how we think has a significant impact on how we feel. We are not Jeanie from I Dream of Jeanie, so we can’t wiggle our nose and magically feel better. The good news is that there are things we can do to feel better.

In our example, the young lady listened to some music, sang along, and all of a sudden began feeling happy and looking forward to the rest of her evening again. If instead she had sat in silence and thought about how horrible the drivers are, she would have continued to be frustrated and angry. Therefore, we can surmise that we can change how we feel by doing something, especially something we enjoy.

I find that taking a walk can help me feel better almost every time. When I take a walk, I do something that I call “peeling the onion”. I may be feeling bad about something, but I cannot pinpoint the exact root of my feelings. When I peel the onion layer after layer and get to the source of the concern, it is typically something that I have no control over. Identifying the source, realizing what I do and do not have control over, and making a plan helps me feel so much better.

The next time you feel like unleashing on someone, pause and think about how you would handle this exact situation with your boss sitting next to you, or with your grandma there. Picture someone you love and admire there with you. What behavior choices would you make then, and what does that tell you about who controls you?

Please note:  This blog post is based upon the teachings of Dr. William Glasser and Choice Theory. I learned about Choice Theory and Reality Therapy through training with The William Glasser Institute and reading many books written by Dr. Glasser. I was even able to spend some time with Dr. Glasser–one time I bought him a bluegill dinner at Hofbrau restaurant in Interlochen, MI.

If you are interested in learning more about the work of Dr. Glasser, I recommend reading Choice Theory (Glasser, William. Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. , 1998. Print.) or visiting www.wglasser.com for training opportunities.

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