It is the ability to choose which makes us human.
— Madeleine L’Engle


I used to experience life like a puppet on a string: controlled by elusive, invisible ties to external circumstances and input.  

For example, if someone – especially an authority figure in my life – criticized something that I did, I’d descend into shame and defensiveness. Or if someone paid me a compliment, my mood would instantly lift and I’d be walking on air for a while.  

Hear some praise? Yay! I’d feel good.  

Hear some criticism? UGH. I’d feel bad.  

My feelings, my mood, my internal state were so closely tied to how other people would respond to me or to whatever I was fielding outside of myself.

However, as I embarked on my own compassion and consciousness journey, things began to change.

As I healed old wounds, brought exiled parts of myself back into consciousness and love, embraced my imperfections and reactivity with self-compassion, and continued to get to know myself more deeply, something profound began to shift inside of me. As I became increasingly aware, awake, and conscious of my internal world, I discovered a much deeper ability to choose my responses to various situations and relationships.

I no longer experienced my sense of self or my safety as being determined by things outside of myself.

I was no longer held hostage by my reactivity as often, nor internally hijacked as often by my fears and predictions.

I became less dependent on praise and compliments for my sense of self and well-being, and I became increasingly grounded in a set of deeper values and intentions for my life.

Our personal journeys evolve like this: As we wake up to ourselves and begin understanding ourselves and others more clearly and with much more compassion, we also develop our capacity to have more choice in our lives. 

Choice is about our ability to consciously select from a range of options in any given situation. The more perspectives we can take, the more options we can imagine. The more contrasts we are aware of, and the more we are able to keep our compassionate, conscious witnessing self in charge, the more possible it is for us to make wise choices in our lives.  

How to Cultivate Choicefulness

  1. Distinguishing Stimulus vs. Response
    We notice the difference between the external things that happen to us and our internal response to those things. We tune into the very important difference between what is happening AROUND us, and what is happening WITHIN us. Both are important, influential, and valid aspects of data gathering, but we only really have control over what is happening WITHIN us. When we focus our attention on what is arising on the inside instead of what is happening on the outside, we can maintain our focus in the places where we have the most power to make a change. By tuning into our own responses, we not only begin to see our own unconscious and habitual relational frames, but we can also start to heal our wounds and develop new moves for stuck situations.

  2. Noticing Contrasts and Options
    Often we don’t have true choice in a situation until we become aware of the contrast between what we are used to experiencing and what we are actually longing to experience. We tune into contrasts and see a wider range of options available to us in any given situation. Many of us settle for the same hurtful relational dynamics that we became used to experiencing and adapting to as children. We think that’s just how the world is, how relationships are. Often, we don’t even imagine how different things could be until we experience living examples that provide us with a new vision, a contrast between what we are used to, and what we actually long for. It’s in the space between what we’ve experienced previously, and what our hearts actually long for, that we can begin to see new options, new moves, and real choices.

  3. Leading from Our Compassionate Witness
    We cultivate our ability to regulate and soothe our fear responses and work with our internal activation states so that we can keep our Wise Self in charge. As we practice self-regulation and self-awareness, we find that choice is more possible when we begin to take responsibility for our reactivity and our stress-response states. We learn meditation, breathing techniques, self-regulation skills. We get into therapy, find healthy friendships and healthy relationships, join support groups. We read a slew of self-help books and go on countless retreats to try to fill up what was missing for us earlier in life. We learn how to relax in the face of strong emotions – yours and mine. We learn to take people’s reactions less personally. We learn how to move into a place of connected, shared humanity with one another.

  4. Giving Ourselves Permission to Say Yes and No

    Finally, we cultivate choicefulness by reminding ourselves that we don’t “have to” do anything we do not want to do. We give ourselves permission to say a firm NO to those things that we do not want, those things that do not meet our needs. We also give ourselves permission to say a wholehearted, joyful YES to those things our hearts actually desire and long for. We get in touch with our deep longings, our deeper needs and desires, and we allow ourselves to live in service of those things which bring us joy, relaxation and contentment. We allow and welcome feelings of goodness, satisfaction and bliss. We stop feeling afraid of feeling good. We drop words and concepts like “have to,” “must” and “should” from our vocabularies, and we replace them with words and phrases like “could” or “if I want to …” or “One possibility might be … and another might be …” We stop making ourselves do anything that causes inner conflict, tension or constriction of our hearts and souls.

We can’t change that which we cannot see, so we first work on consciousness. Seeing.

We also can’t change that which we reject, so we practice self-compassion. We embrace and accept that which we find within.

We can’t change that which we resist, so we practice choice in all moments. We work with ourselves gently, tenderly and with dignity – following the innate, intuitive pace that emerges within us, honoring both our YES and our NO as we go.

To close, I’ll share this well-known poem by Portia Nelson about the process of getting to new choices in our lives:

Autobiography in Five Chapters

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost…I am helpless.
It is not my fault.
It takes forever to find my way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in this same place.
It is still not my fault.
It takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in…it’s a habit now.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

This article about choice is the third in our series exploring the Five Core Commitments, following the first about Consciousness and the second about Compassion.

Next week, we’ll dive into Courage.  


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