We Need a New Psychology
SUPPOSE YOU COULD ask all the people in the world who are not hungry, sick, or poor, people who seem to have a lot to live for, to give you an honest answer to the question, “How are you?” Millions would say, “I’m miserable.” If asked why, almost all of them would blame someone else for their misery—lovers, wives, husbands, exes, children, parents, teachers, students, or people they work with. There is hardly a person alive who hasn’t been heard saying, “You’re driving me crazy…. That really upsets me…. Don’t you have any consideration for how I feel? … You make me so mad, I can’t see straight.” It never crosses their minds that they are choosing the misery they are complaining about.
Choice theory explains that, for all practical purposes, we choose everything we do, including the misery we feel. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy. All we can get from them or give to them is information. But by itself, information cannot make us do or feel anything. It goes into our brains, where we process it and then decide what to do. As I explain in great detail in this book, we choose all our actions and thoughts and, indirectly, almost all our feelings and much of our physiology. As bad as you may feel, much of what goes on in your body when you are in pain or sick is the indirect result of the actions and thoughts you choose or have chosen every day of your life.
I also show how and why we make these painful, even crazy, choices and how we can make better ones. Choice theory teaches that we are much more in control of our lives than we realize. Unfortunately, much of that control is not effective. For example, you choose to feel upset with your child, then you choose to yell and threaten, and things get worse, not better. Taking more effective control means making better choices as you relate to your children and everyone else. You can learn through choice theory how people actually function: how we combine what is written in our genes with what we learn as we live our lives.
The best way to learn choice theory is to focus on why we choose the common miseries that we believe just happen to us. When we are depressed, we believe that we have no control over our suffering, that we are victims of an imbalance in our neurochemistry and hence that we need brain drugs, such as Prozac, to get our chemistry back into balance. Little of this belief is true. We have a lot of control over our suffering. We are rarely the victims of what happened to us in the past, and, as will be explained in chapter 4, our brain chemistry is normal for what we are choosing to do. Brain drugs may make us feel better, but they do not solve the problems that led us to choose to feel miserable.
The seeds of almost all our unhappiness are planted early in our lives when we begin to encounter people who have discovered not only what is right for them—but also, unfortunately, what is right for us. Armed with this discovery and following a destructive tradition that has dominated our thinking for thousands of years, these people feel obligated to try to force us to do what they know is right. Our choice of how we resist that force is, by far, the greatest source of human misery. Choice theory challenges this ancient I-know-what’s-right-for-you tradition. This entire book is an attempt to answer the all-important question that almost all of us continually ask ourselves when we are unhappy: How can I figure out how to be free to live my life the way I want to live it and still get along well with the people I need?
From the perspective of forty years of psychiatric practice, it has become apparent to me that all unhappy people have the same problem: They are unable to get along well with the people they want to get along well with. I have had many counseling successes, but I keep hearing my mentor, Dr. G. L. Harrington, the most skillful psychiatrist I’ve ever known, saying, “If all the professionals in our field suddenly disappeared, the world would hardly note their absence.” He was not disparaging what we do. He was saying that if the goal of psychiatrists is to reduce the misery rampant in the world and to help human beings get along with each other, their efforts have hardly scratched the surface.
To begin to approach that goal, we need a new psychology that can help us get closer to each other than most of us are able to do now. The psychology must be easy to understand, so it can be taught to anyone who wants to learn it. And it must be easy to use once we understand it. Our present psychology has failed. We do not know how to get along with each other any better than we ever have. Indeed, the psychology we have embraced tends to drive us apart. In the area of marriage alone, it is clear that the use of this traditional psychology has failed.
I call this universal psychology that destroys relationships because it destroys personal freedom external control psychology. The control can be as slight as a disapproving glance or as forceful as a threat to our lives. But whatever it is, it is an attempt to force us to do what we may not want to do. We end up believing that other people can actually make us feel the way we feel or do the things we do. This belief takes away the personal freedom we all need and want.
The simple operational premise of the external control psychology the world uses is: Punish the people who are doing wrong, so they will do what we say is right; then reward them, so they keep doing what we want them to do. This premise dominates the thinking of most people on earth. What makes this psychology so prevalent is that those who have the power—agents of government, parents, teachers, business managers, and religious leaders, who also define what’s right or wrong—totally support it. And the people they control, having so little control over their own lives, find some security in accepting the control of these powerful people. It is unfortunate that almost no one is aware that this controlling, coercing, or forcing psychology is creating the widespread misery that, as much as we have tried, we have not yet been able to reduce.
This misery continues unabated not because we have thought it over and decided that controlling others is best. It continues because when people do not do what we want them to do, coercion and control are all we think of using. It is the psychology of our ancestors, our parents and grandparents, of our teachers and leaders, of almost all the people we know or know about. Coercion, to try to get our way, has been with us so long that it is considered common sense, and we use it without thinking about it. We neither care where it came from nor question its validity.
If external control is the source of so much misery, why is it the choice of almost all people, even powerless people who suffer so much from it? The answer is simple: It works. It works for the powerful because it often gets them what they want. It works for the powerless because they experience it working on them and live in hope that they will eventually be able to use it on someone else. The lowest people on the totem pole look up more than they look down. But even more so, the powerless accept it because as miserable as they may be, they believe that they are not free to choose otherwise. They further believe, usually correctly, that to resist would be worse.
So one way or another, most people are doing many things they don’t want to do. For example, many women stay in abusive marriages because they think leaving would be worse. Alone, they fear they would be unable to support themselves, lose their children, might still suffer abuse, and maybe risk their lives. Many continually entertain the hope that if they stick it out, things will get better. But this book is about much more than why people stay and accept external control. It is about the fact that the belief in and use of external control harms everyone, both the controllers and the controlled. For example, the abusive husband also suffers (though not as much as his wife and family). He, too, is a victim of external control psychology. In choosing to do what he does, he loses any chance for happiness. This psychology is a terrible plague that invades every part of our lives. It destroys our happiness, our health, our marriages, our families, our ability to get an education, and our willingness to do high-quality work. It is the cause of most of the violence, crime, drug abuse, and unloving sex that are pervasive in our society.
This book is all about this human toll and how it can be reduced by both learning why external control is so harmful and how a new, pro-relationship theory can replace it. Choice theory is an internal control psychology; it explains why and how we make the choices that determine the course of our lives. Choice theory is a complete change from what has been common sense to what I hope will become, in time, a new common sense. This change is not easy. It can happen only through learning what is wrong with external control psychology and the overwhelming reasons to replace it with choice theory as we deal with the people in our lives. As we attempt to do this, we will continually ask ourselves: Will what I am about to do bring me closer to these people or move us further apart? How we use this basic question and what would be possible if we did are the heart and soul of this book.
What I do in this book is question the basic psychology of the world, and I have no illusions that it is an easy task. To begin to realize the existence of this psychology and how harmful it is to our lives, we need to take a look at some of the misery we suffer because we depend on our common sense even when it becomes apparent that it isn’t working. For example, using the only psychology you know, you punish your teenage son for not doing his schoolwork by grounding him on weekends. But after you ground him, he still doesn’t do his homework, and to make matters worse, you have a sullen teenager hanging around the house all weekend. After a month, you begin to think: Why am I doing this over and over? There must be a better way.
It may take a while to come to this realization because punishing your son is so much a part of your common sense that it doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels right. It’s what a good parent does in this situation—it’s probably what your parents did to you—and you are supported by everyone you ask. Giving you the benefit of an almost universal common sense, they say, Punish him. Why are you asking nie this stupid question? Do you want him to grow up to be a bum? The only problem with this advice is that it rarely succeeds. As you continue to punish your son, he and you stop talking and listening to each other. You are both miserable, you blame each other for how you feel, and he does less schoolwork than before.
Still, for most people, the idea of going against common sense, especially in how they deal with their children, is a new and troubling idea. But assuming you would like to have less misery in your life, you may be open to learning why controlling and allowing yourself to be controlled are so destructive to the relationships you need to be happy. Then you may be willing to try choice theory in some situations in which attempting to control has been ineffective. If it works better—and my twenty years of experience with choice theory argue that it will—you may want to begin the difficult process of discarding external control and replacing it with choice theory. Psychologies, even common sense, ancient psychologies, should be discarded if they damage relationships.
To convince you that we should give up external control psychology, I have included a simple graph that compares two kinds of progress: technical progress and human progress. Such a comparison is unusual because when we think of progress, the progress that comes to mind is technical because, as the graph shows, this progress is so obvious. We rarely think of human progress, which is getting along with each other better than we have in the past, because we haven’t seen or read about enough people getting along that much better with each other to begin to think there has been much progress in this area.
In the past hundred years, there has been considerable technical progress. We have moved from the first airplane to the supersonic jet to exploring Mars. Communication has gone from the turn-the-crank phone to the internet. The list is endless. Not so with human progress. Except for some improvements in civil rights in the 1960s and some recent movement toward better relationships between managers and workers since quality management surfaced in the 1970s, we are no more able to get along well with each other than we ever were.
Technical progress as compared to human progress.
Can anyone say that there has been any improvement in how husbands and wives get along with each other? Are families in better shape today than years ago? If they are, it’s news to me. I work in schools, and I have yet to hear a teacher say that things are better now than when he or she started teaching. Actually, I hear more of the opposite—that the kids are tougher to teach than ever. And in these days of the sacred bottom line and the heartless downsizing it takes to raise it, no one is making much noise about how much better the workplace is than it was years ago. In fact, even bosses are experiencing less job satisfaction.
As much as we haven’t been able to make any improvement in the way we get along with each other to nudge the graph upward, there are enough situations in which we do that there is no doubt that we could do so if more of us learned how. Here and there, we find marvelous schools, in which all the teachers and students care for each other and everyone is learning and happy. All of us know happily married couples, solid families, and people who are well satisfied with their jobs. But when asked to explain their happiness, many hesitate. They aren’t sure. Some say, We work hard to get along with each other, but others shrug and say, Maybe luck has a lot to do with it. What they never say is, We have given up trying to control each other. They don’t realize that they may be following a different theory, that inadvertently they have discovered choice theory.
When asked about technical progress, people occasionally talk about getting along better with each other. Many do see that there is a correlation between the two in some cases. But few people attribute major technical progress to luck. Technology has progressed in this area because we are willing to or have embraced a new theory or a new way to use an old one.
In almost all attempts to improve human progress, for example, to improve marriages, families, schools, or work, there has been no operational change in theory. External control is so firmly in the saddle that even when we make a little progress, we are blind to the fact that we have given up external control psychology and are starting to use what is, in essence, choice theory. What I am addressing is our need to become aware that there is another psychology.
I do not claim that there are no other psychologies that are similar to choice theory. Albert Ellis’s* rational emotive behavior therapy is certainly one of them. In the area of work, W. Edwards Deming† has shown that high-quality work is dependent on driving out the fear that prevents people from getting along well with each other. He likens the manager in the workplace to the leader of a symphony orchestra in which everyone willingly follows the leader and contributes to the performance. No one is forced to make a contribution; they do so because they see that it is to their benefit.
Even though he is probably not aware of it, Herb Kelleher, the extremely successful CEO of Southwest Airlines, is practicing choice theory in how he runs his company. In a recent book, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Business Recipe for Both Business and Personal Success,* Kelleher said this about leadership: “It really signifies getting people, through both example and persuasion, to happily join together in pursuit of a worthwhile common cause.” On downsizing, which he called a corporate blunder, he stated, “We haven’t had any furloughs at Southwest, although obviously during the recession we could have made more money if we had. The disaffection it engenders, the angst. Once you do it [workers] don’t forget about it for a long time.” The people, not the bottom line, are sacred at Southwest.
But Southwest is an exception. If Kelleher sells out or retires, it is almost certain that the people who take over will downsize and become coercive to try to improve profits. And in the short run, they may be successful. Without Kelleher, however, the new owners are likely to revert to external control and fail in the long run.
We also do not see how widespread misery really is because, again guided by common sense, a lot of us think that misery is caused mainly by poverty, laziness, or how the powerful treat the powerless. But in the affluent Western world, there is no shortage of miserable people who are well off, hardworking, and powerful. I have noticed that there is a high rate of divorce among successful academics, with successful professionals and business leaders close behind. The failure of children and parents to get along well may be more extreme among the poor and powerless, but it is hardly exclusive to that group.
Although more students in poverty areas refuse to make the effort to learn than do students in affluent areas, this failure is related much more to how teachers and students get along with each other than to the fortunes of those who attend. Students from prosperous families, in which education is the main reason for the prosperity, are usually more motivated to learn than are students from families who have not been helped by education. Teachers appreciate this motivation and tend to make a greater effort to get along with the former students, which is another reason they learn more. But if teachers were offered choice theory and found how useful it was in their marriages and families, they could also begin to use it to get along better with students who seem to be unmotivated. This effort could go a long way to make up for the lack of support for education at home, and the previously unmotivated students would learn a lot more than they do now.
In chapter 10, on education, I explain how choice theory was used in a minority school that my wife and I worked in for a year. This is an area I know something about. The common sense that poor or minority students can’t or won’t learn is totally wrong. When they get along well with their teachers, they may learn more slowly because they start further back, but, in the end, they learn as well as any other students. Productive, high-quality work is assured in any organization in which workers and managers get along well together.
The name for what we usually do when we deal with each other is called the system. In an external control world, the system is naturally coercive. When it fails, as it is failing in marriages, families, schools, and workplaces, we use more coercion and focus on fixing the people. Many therapists stress the systems approach to counseling, in which they do not attempt to fix individuals as much as to help them figure out a way to make the family system work better for all involved. What I suggest is that we try to change to a choice theory system, which teaches everyone, not just unhappy people, how to get along better with each other. What makes external control doubly harmful is that not only does our belief in it create the problems we are trying to solve, but it is also used to deal with the problems. When punishment doesn’t work, invariably we punish harder. It’s no wonder there has been so little progress.
So far only a tiny fraction of the money spent to reduce misery has been spent on prevention, on teaching people how to get along better with each other before they get into the hard-core, adversarial relationships that are the result of too many attempts to control or manipulate. If we want to move the flat line of human progress up, prevention, which means changing from an external control to a choice theory system, is a way we can do so. Once any human problem occurs, for example, when marriages begin to fail, the couples rarely get back together. No matter how skilled the counselor, it is often impossible to save a marriage or a failing student. The answer lies in preventing these failures, not in looking for better ways to fix the people who are failing.
To substantiate my claim that vast numbers of seemingly un-solvable human problems are relationship problems, take a look at your life and the lives of the people you know. I’m sure that many of you are unable to get along with your spouses, parents, or children as well as you would like to. You may also admit that the longer you are with them, the harder it seems to get along.
Think about it. You were happy when you got married. Are you now miserable or divorced? Is there someone in your family you no longer speak to? Are your children as happy in middle school as they were in the early grades? Do you still find joy in the work you do?
If you experience any of the misery in the previous paragraph, you are involved in one or more of four variations of essentially the same attempting-to-control-someone-else situation.
1. You wanted someone else to do what he or she refused to do. Usually, in a variety of ways, some blatant, some devious, you were trying to force him or her to do what you wanted.
2. Someone else was trying to make you to do something you didn’t want to do.
3. Both you and someone else were trying to make each other do what neither wanted to do.
4. You were trying to force yourself to do something you found very painful or even impossible to do.
The first three variations are obviously different aspects of the same situation. Although the fourth is somewhat different, it is in the same genre. In this instance, you may have been trying to force yourself to stop smoking, stay on a job you hated, lose weight when you didn’t want to diet, or love someone you no longer even liked.
In the first three variations, you may be a wife complaining to your husband that you need more help with the children or a husband nagging your wife that her job has left her with no time for you. Or both complaining and nagging each other. You may be a parent or a teacher trying to motivate a child to do better in school. Or a boss coercing a worker to do something he doesn’t think is worth doing. As long as we continue to believe that we can control others or, conversely, that others can control us, the misery associated with common situations such as these will continue unabated. These variations are as old as history, and the resistance to this coercion is the reason we are making so little progress in our relationships.
One of the most puzzling exceptions to this widespread use of external control psychology is that we rarely use it with our best friends, people who have been with us through thick and thin for many years. With them, even though few of us are aware of it, we use choice theory. But whether or not we know the theory, most of us are well aware that we often treat our good friends differently from our mates, children, students, and employees.
We recognize that good friends are our most reliable source of long-term happiness. We seem to know we could lose them, and the happiness that goes with them, if we tried to force them to do what they don’t want to do. I believe this reluctance to try to force a friend, when we have few qualms about trying to force almost everyone else, may be a good way to define close friendship. If we practiced choice theory with everyone, we would make—and keep—many more friends, and our happiness would be substantially increased.
What may also be involved here is ownership. Most of us believe that we should or do own our husbands, wives, children, students, and employees. I have the right to control my wife and kids because they belong to me. This is my classroom, and my students had better do what I say. I own this company and I own you, so do what you are told or look for another place to work—are all examples of ownership thinking. As long as we believe that we own people, we don’t hesitate to force them when they don’t do what we want them to do. We feel differently with our friends; we accept that we don’t own them and they don’t own us. Caring for but never trying to own may be a further way to define friendship.
Without really thinking about ownership, most of us divide the world into two groups. The first group, those we own or try to own, is made up of lovers, wives, husbands, children, students, and employees. The second group, those we don’t own or try to own, usually a large group, consists of good friends; acquaintances; people who have some power over us, such as bosses; and, of course, strangers.
A good way to learn choice theory is to take a close look at how you treat your best friend, your boss, and most strangers compared to how you treat the rest of the people in your life. You know why you don’t try to force your boss or your friend. You rarely force acquaintances, and, if you have any sense at all, you never force strangers because you may get hurt or even killed. Why don’t we live and let live? Why don’t we practice the golden rule when most of us give lip service to it? Why do we keep trying to make other people do what they don’t want to do when, most of the time, we have so little success in this effort? Earlier in this chapter, I began to answer these questions. In the next chapter, in which I introduce the basic needs, I add some new choice theory ideas to this explanation.
But first I want to describe the three beliefs of external control psychology in some detail, so you can understand what most people actually believe. You will easily see that it is the second and third beliefs that are so harmful to human relationships. The easiest way to understand this traditional psychology is to think of how almost all of us use it in our lives.
FIRST BELIEF: I answer a ringing phone, open the door to a doorbell, stop at a red light, or do countless other things because I am responding to a simple external signal.
SECOND BELIEF: I can make other people do what I want them to do even if they do not want to do it. And other people can control how I think, act, and feel.
THIRD BELIEF: It is right, it is even my moral obligation, to ridicule, threaten, or punish those who don’t do what I tell them to do or even reward them if it will get them to do what I want.
These three commonsense beliefs are the foundation of the external control psychology that essentially rules the world.
In the first belief, the ring of the phone or any other mechanical signal is the external control that most people think makes them answer. In the second, extrapolating from the first, the control is always someone outside the behaving person, for example, a parent telling a child, “Mow the lawn”; a teacher telling a student, “Stop talking in class”; or a husband saying to his wife, “You made me mad.” Following the third and most destructive belief, husbands, wives, parents, teachers, and bosses believe it is their right, their duty, and even their moral obligation to threaten, punish, or bribe children or adults who choose to disobey them because it is in these children’s or adults’ best interest to do what they are told.
The foundation of these beliefs, that we are externally motivated, is wrong. Just as the world was flat until someone began to question that belief, answering a phone because it rings seems right until we begin to question it. Once any external control belief is questioned, it becomes clear that what was right is actually wrong. For example, we do not answer a phone because it rings; we answer it because we want to. Instantaneous as our response may be, every time we answer a phone, we have decided that this is the best choice. If we didn’t think so, we wouldn’t answer it.
You may argue, “If I don’t answer the phone because it rings, then what’s the purpose of the ring? I certainly don’t go around answering phones that aren’t ringing.” The ring does have a purpose, but it is not to make you answer. It is to give you information, to tell you that someone out there wants to talk to someone here. The ringing of the phone, and all else we perceive from the outside world, including what we perceive from our own bodies, is information. But information is not control. Choice theory explains that stimuli, in the sense that they can consistently control a human being to make a specific choice, do not exist.
Since information does not make us do anything, we can choose to ignore it or act on it any way we see fit. We are not machines. We are not, as machines are, designed to respond in a specific way to an external control. When we do as we are told, it is because we choose to do it on the basis of the information we have. In the case of the phone, if we don’t want to answer it, we can let it ring, let a machine answer it, pull the clip out of the wall to disconnect it, or yell to someone else to answer it.
Whatever behavior we choose is generated inside our brains. Choice theory explains that we are, as all living creatures are, internally motivated. You may ask, “What difference does it make why I answer the phone or do anything else I do? I’ve done it, so what?” For simple mechanical information like the ringing of a phone or a red traffic light, it doesn’t make any difference. It is not until we go from the first belief to the next, much more complicated second belief—trying to make someone do what he or she does not want to do or believing someone else can control our behavior—that you can begin to appreciate the enormous difference between external control and choice theory.
For example, if I know choice theory, you cannot make me feel guilty by telling me that you wish you had a house as nice as mine. If I had done something to deprive you of a nice house, I probably should choose to feel guilty, but if I haven’t, why should I choose to feel guilty? Freedom from the undeserved guilt that floods the external control world we live in is a huge benefit of learning to use choice theory in your life. Many mothers rely on external control psychology to make their children feel guilty. But choosing to feel guilty because you don’t do what your mother expects of you is a choice. When you learn this lesson—and if you have a skilled guilt-tripping mother it is not an easy one to learn—you will find that it frees both you and your mother to make better choices.
A striking example of the freedom to choose is best illustrated by the behavior of a good friend of mine, a criminologist, who didn’t think that this theoretical difference between external control psychology and choice theory was important. He may owe his life to the fact that when he made what most of us would consider a poor choice, external control psychology was threatened but not used.
My friend went to Las Vegas on some academic business and was put up in a fancy hotel. Even though friends warned him to be careful and quickly lock, bolt, and chain the door every time he entered his room, he did not pay attention to this information. On one occasion, he forgot even to close the door securely, much less bolt it and chain it. A moment later a man, brandishing a gun, stepped in through the unlocked door. If you had been there, you would have witnessed a very unusual sight: a criminal and a criminologist face to face. The criminal, a seemingly firm believer in this traditional psychology, said, “Gimme your wallet.” My friend, much to his surprise (he was surprised because he was practicing choice theory), told the thief, “You can’t have my wallet. I’ll give you money but not the wallet.” The criminal took the few dollars that my friend put on the floor and left.
If the criminal had been a dedicated practitioner of external control psychology, my friend might not have lived to tell the story. A gun in the hands of a man who will use it is about as strong an external control as there is. At a crucial moment, just after my friend made the choice not to give the criminal the wallet, the criminal switched to choice theory and chose not to shoot him. Choices, even what may seem to be unusual choices, are what this book is all about. If even a dedicated criminal can give up external control when it seems better to do so, it should not be that hard for most of us.
But many times in life, when we are miserable it is because we continue to blame others for our misery or try to control others when it is against our best interest to do so. To explain, I’ll continue the father-son example I started earlier. You grounded your son who didn’t do his schoolwork, and now he has stopped working altogether. He is hanging around with the “wrong” kids and admits to smoking marijuana, and you have caught him sneaking out of the house on weekends.
You have spent a lot of time punishing and arguing, but your son is worse than he was before you started. You have now taken the step of grounding him during the week as well as on weekends. As time goes by, you begin to realize more and more that the punishment that may have worked when you and he had a better relationship is no longer working. He has stopped talking to you, and you have a note from school that he is cutting classes.
Punishment isn’t working, but you firmly believe that what you are doing is right. Yet as you continue to keep him in, you notice that you no longer have any influence with him. When you try to talk with him, he just rolls his eyes as if to say, Who would want to listen to you?
As far as your son is concerned you are close to a nonentity. What little relationship you had with him before you grounded him seems to have disappeared. He is nothing like the son you had a few years ago, and you are at your wits’ end. Your own child is treating you like an enemy. Even though you have no way of knowing what’s actually wrong, you do know that what you are both doing is tearing the two of you apart.
Some variation of this scenario can be observed in much of the long-term misery many parents and teachers experience with teenagers. Marriage is also fertile soil for long-term misery, as is an unsatisfying job. But this current pain is controllable. It is different from the pain of uncontrollable tragic events, such as the loss of a loved one or the terrible disappointment that follows losing a good job through no fault of your own. It is controllable because you can choose to stop punishing the teenager you want to get along with and learn to deal with him so that disobedience rarely occurs. How to do so is covered in some detail in part 2 of this book.
In the case of your son, punishment—whether it’s right or wrong—isn’t working. Before you grounded him, he was doing some schoolwork; now he is choosing to do none. Before, you could at least talk to him; now he and you don’t speak. From what was once a good relationship, you have become adversaries. Your choice to follow the second and third beliefs of external control psychology—that you can and should force your son to do what you want him to do—is the reason for your misery. If you can choose to stop controlling, even in a world based on external control, you can stop contributing to your own misery and to the misery of those you are using it with. Knowing that others need you as much as you need them, even if they are trying to control you, can help you to stop retaliating, and then things have a chance to get better.
But you can do more than stop. You can replace forcing and retaliation with negotiation. Tell your son why you are not going to punish him anymore—that your relationship is more important to you than his schoolwork and that you want to do some enjoyable things with him the way you used to. He knows you want him to do his schoolwork; you have more than made your point. Hammering away at it is totally unproductive. If he and you can get back to being close, the chances of his doing schoolwork and everything else you want him to do are much more likely than if you continue to be estranged.
We must realize that if we coerce anyone too long, there may be a point of no return. We and they may never be close again. Lacking this closeness, some children begin to give up on relationships and, eventually, embark on a lifelong destructive search for pleasure. To achieve and maintain the relationships we need, we must stop choosing to coerce, force, compel, punish, reward, manipulate, boss, motivate, criticize, blame, complain, nag, badger, rank, rate, and withdraw. We must replace these destructive behaviors with choosing to care, listen, support, negotiate, encourage, love, befriend, trust, accept, welcome, and esteem. These words define the difference between external control psychology and choice theory.
When I checked my thesaurus for the words in the previous paragraph, I discovered that more of them were external control than choice theory. Since our language is a mirror of our culture, this is strong evidence that we live in a world that is attuned more to destroying relationships than to preserving them.
Despite the fact that we have had little success in improving relationships, as a nation we are concerned enough about this misery to spend a lot of money trying to reduce it. In just one area, public education, billions of dollars continue to be spent to improve school success, with no improvement no matter how success is measured. President Bill Clinton devoted ten minutes of his 1997 State of the Union address to education. He had some good suggestions and hinted that more federal money would be provided if it were needed.
But if there is a truth about people that no one can dispute, it is that success in any endeavor is directly proportional to how well the people who are involved in it get along with each other. Although this truth is self-evident in marriages and families, it is equally true in schools and workplaces. Students who get along well with their teachers and with each other are almost always successful, but, overall, less than half the students do. And the proportion of students who do so is less than 10 percent in schools in poverty neighborhoods, urban or rural. In these almost nonfunctional schools, most of the money and effort is not only wasted, some of it is used to purchase disciplinary programs that are harmful to the relationships that students need to succeed in school.
We need a national effort to run schools in which teachers and students are happy. But we have to go far beyond the schools and build a society in which husbands, wives, family members, workers, and managers are much happier than they are now. I will risk being called naive and say that ultimately this book is about happiness. Of all that we attempt, this seemingly modest goal is the most difficult to achieve.
To be happy, I believe we need to be close to other happy people. Therefore, the fewer happy people there are, the less chance any of us has for happiness. The world is filled with lonely, frustrated, angry, unhappy people who are not able to get close to anyone who is happy. Their main social skills are complaining about, blaming, and criticizing others, hardly the way to get along well with anyone.
What I would like to introduce here and explain much further in later chapters is that unhappiness can lead people in two directions. The first unhappy group tries to find the way back to happiness, which I define as pleasurable relationships with happy people. The second unhappy group has given up on finding happiness with happy people; they no longer even try to have pleasurable relationships. But like all of us, they do not give up on trying to feel good. They continually search for pleasure without relationships and find much of it by abusing food, alcohol, drugs, and by engaging in violence and unloving sex. If we cannot create a society in which more people are happy, we will never come close to reducing these destructive and self-destructive choices.
Recently a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Agency said on public radio that there are a half million heroin and cocaine addicts in New York City. Even if this figure is exaggerated, if we added alcoholics, who are also addicts, the number would be staggering. Almost all these unhappy people have abandoned good relationships for nonhuman pleasure. They find quick, intense pleasure easily in drugs because this pleasure requires nothing more than getting the drug into their bloodstream. Except for finding the drug, other people are not required.
Some of the unhappy people I am talking about are not necessarily poor or members of a minority. They are not necessarily involved with drugs, violence, or unloving sex. Many of them are responsible people who take care of themselves and do no harm to others. But because of the way they choose to behave, they are unable to sustain satisfying relationships with happy people, and as a result they are miserable. Misery is among the most democratic of all life experiences.
Because we don’t understand the difference between seeking happiness in relationships and seeking pleasure without relationships, we don’t understand why unhappy, pleasure-seeking people are so difficult to help. We assume that they are looking for the human relationships that helping professionals like psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and counselors ordinarily try to provide.
But with the second group of unhappy people, those who have given up on relationships and are looking for pleasure without them, this assumption is wrong. They may talk as if they are looking for relationships, but it’s only talk. They don’t make this attempt themselves, so the job of helping them is much harder than if they were still seeking happiness. Whether we like it or not, someone must reintroduce them to people who are seeking happiness.
Counselors and teachers are the most likely people to do so, but nonprofessional volunteers who know choice theory and have good people skills (such as successful retired people) are a source to be considered, which I discuss in the last part of this book. For alcoholics, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offers relationships they desperately need, and it is successful with about half who attend the meetings. If there is a defining characteristic of AA, it is that the organization uses much more choice theory than external control.
All of us, professional and nonprofessional alike, will have more success with this pleasure-seeking group (no matter how they behave) if we understand that what they are lacking is relationships. But to relate successfully to them, we must be scrupulous about not trying to control them. External control, their use of it and others’ use of it on them, has led them to where they are. What also seems to work is to teach them choice theory, which can explain what they are doing to themselves. Choice theory education could be a part of every correctional and drug rehabilitation program because it is in these programs that these people are found in large numbers. Teaching them in small groups can be very effective because it offers them the opportunity to build relationships, in a sense by experiencing the theory as they learn it. As I begin to explain in the next chapter, we need each other; that need is in our genes.
* Albert Ellis, How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes Anything (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1988).
† W. Edwards Deming, Some Theory of Sampling (New York: Dover, 1966).
* Herb Kelleher, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Business Recipe for Both Business and Personal Success (Austin, Tex.: Bard Press, 1997).