Feeling that your freedom of choice has been taken away can be deeply frustrating, but even in very restrictive circumstances, we can still choose how to respond to what is going on in our lives — by recognising the limitations of our ability to exercise control and then making our choices within them.
The last week or so, I’ve been faced with two quite different situations in which I’ve felt frustrated at not feeling able to do what I wanted to do. I had a sense that there was, at some deeper than surface level, some connection between the two — some underlying theme that could tell me something about my frustrated response to my apparent ‘lack of choice’. Here are my reflections on the two situations.
For three days last week, I was without access to the internet, both at home and at the office. The two locations share the same local telephone exchange and so when the exchange went down, so did all of the local broadband services. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a bit of an internet junkie. In fact, I’m really not sure what I used to do with my time before the ubiquitous internet was invented, particularly since the arrival of broadband.
But to be honest, the amount of time I spend online deeply frustrates me; I don’t want to spend all these hours on the internet, because actually, it’s taking me away from other things that I want or need to do instead. But somehow, every day, I get sucked into it. It’s a habit which I know is bad for me but which I struggle to wean myself from. Part of the trouble is the usefulness of the internet in itself: most of my client referrals come via email, I do most of my research and reading around counselling issues online, and of course some of my work — including this blog! — is produced via the web. And that’s without going into the benefits of online shopping.
So where does my problem lie? Well, I find I get distracted from the task in hand; I give in to the temptation to surf a little bit and check out the latest headlines. I don’t finish what I started before distracting myself with something else. If I’m writing a blog or something that requires careful thought, then whenever I reach a sticking point and need to stop and think, I tend to go off and look at a few web pages rather than take the time to do the reflecting and thinking required. It takes an effort of will to turn my gaze away from the bright screen, or even — heavens above — to switch it off entirely.
I don’t think I’m addicted to the internet, but I do think I have an unhealthy level of usage of it — unhealthy in the sense that it gets in the way of the other things I want to do. It’s a sticking-point in the flow of everyday life, a bit like a piece of jam on the sole of your shoe that sticks to the carpet with every step you take, interrupting an otherwise smooth progress. It’s an easy way of spending (wasting?) time. Ultimately though, it’s a choice I make for myself — do I go online or do I go and find something much more interesting to do instead?
In contrast, this week delivered a rather different problem, with the arrival of several inches of snow in our area. British newspapers have made much of our seeming inability in this country to cope with even a light covering of snow, let alone the unusual amounts we’ve had this month. The nation grinds to a halt; schools close; shops run out of fresh bread and milk; trains, buses and planes are at a standstill; and millions of people face losing wages because they can’t get to work. I sympathise, I really do. Being a wheelchair-user, it doesn’t take much snow to effectively keep me stuck at home. Wheelchair tyres are not much good in the snow, and while I could probably get out of my house down the access ramp, I certainly couldn’t get back up it — I’d be wheel-spinning at the bottom until someone came to rescue me!
I know that what I should have done is plan ahead, buy some road salt when the first forecasts of snow appeared, and so been better prepared for it when it arrived. To be honest, living on the south coast of England, I really didn’t expect the snow at all this early in the winter, let alone for several inches of it to be lying here for three days. That being said, the fact remains that with conditions underfoot (or under-wheel in my case) being so bad, I’m not going anywhere.
What riles me about this scenario (as opposed to the glued to the internet scenario) is that I feel my choice has been taken away from me, at least in the sense that if I want to be sure of staying safe and in control, then I can’t risk going out, however much I might want to. This is frustrating! But there is not a great deal I can do about it right now; it’s not my choice to stay in right now — there are things I’d like to be doing, such as taking my dog for a walk, doing some Christmas shopping, etc. If things were different and I could go out walking in the snow, then I’d be straight out the door quicker than you can say ‘put a scarf on’! But that’s another thing I can do nothing about: it’s out of my control, just like the weather.
So what do I do? Feel ‘stuck’ indoors and spend my time grumpy and frustrated at not being able to go out? Or find constructive and pleasant things to do while I’m in here and the snow is lying thick and crisp on the ground outside?
It seems to me that even when we think we don’t have a choice about something, in actual fact we do: we can recognise and accept those things that we cannot change or that we have no control over, and then choose how to think, feel and behave within those limitations. Last week and the loss of broadband access aside, I can choose whether to spend my time glued to the internet or whether to turn away and do something else instead. This week, I can choose whether to dwell upon the restrictions forced upon me by the weather, or whether to spend time I don’t usually have available in my busy life to do pleasurable indoor things while waiting for the thaw to start. The difference in the two scenarios is that in the first one, the only thing holding me back (the jam on the sole of my shoe) is myself and my fixation with the internet; in the second, what’s holding me back are circumstances external to me and beyond my control, i.e the weather. All I can do in this latter scenario is to make my choices within the restrictions imposed by circumstance. My choices are still there — just different ones.
Today, the temperature is rising and the snow is beginning to melt. I’m hoping it’ll be safe enough for me to take the dog for a walk later this afternoon. In the meantime, once I’ve filed this post, I’m going to spend some time making Christmas cards, and later — after my dog walk — I’m going to go online to order some road salt. But I’m not going to stay online once I’ve done it!
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