Once you get to adulthood, you generally like to feel you’re calling the shots. But are we in a position to decide anything at all of our own free will as individual agents?
To what extent do we ever make our own decisions? It can certainly feel very uncomfortable and disempowering when you feel that others are making them for you. It can also make you feel safe and protected if someone you trust makes a decision for you that you aren’t equipped to make — this is ideally an experience that children have.
A recognisable developmental stage for children, although probably not in all cultures, comes after that period in which decisions are, hopefully wisely, made for them. The next stage is wanting to do things ‘myself!’ and pointing out things that are ‘mine!’ Making ‘my own’ decision is a big deal for a toddler even if the options are often limited to refusing to comply. Later, there’s less compulsion about ‘doing my own thing’, which is either a sign of maturity and co-operation, or the fact that a child’s will has been flattened and overpowered by the adults around them. There tends to be a recurrence of the will during teenage years, if we follow the classic cultural pattern we see around us in the contemporary Western world. As we enter adulthood, there is again a risk of being flattened — this time not by parents but by the world around us, with its set socio-economic and cultural pathways and constraints. The desire to be sure we’re making our own decisions can surge up though, throughout our lives, and very often leads people to counselling, in order to untangle all the voices and pressures they feel bubbling under the surface, if not shouting in their ear, when they try to make an important decision about their own lives. Is it possible, natural or even desirable, though, to make a decision which is not substantially influenced by those around you?
Once you get to adulthood, you generally like to feel you’re calling the shots. The basis on which you make decisions, however, is inevitably made up of many different voices from significant, or even not-so-significant others, past and present. Sometimes the voices are extremely persistent and often they are working on you in real life, too; most of us know somebody who always knows what’s best for us.
Whether we are in any position to ultimately decide anything at all of our own free will as individual agents is a philosophical issue which is extremely hard to answer in the affirmative. This might seem depressing, as if it’s removing meaning from life. On the other hand, there’s a substratum at which you can feel as if decisions are made for you, in a way which feels more like coming into sync with meaning than its absence. The decision ‘makes itself’. The only thing that could happen, happens. You get out of the way, and feel a comforting rightness, a kind of oneness with the decision.
This can be interpreted as a religious experience, ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. It’s what happens when things ‘fall into place’ and the next step appears. There’s a lack of internal dialogue, argument, worry and doubt. When in this state, it’s not necessary to call the decision ‘mine’, to separate yourself out from the action in that way. You just do it.
The sense of having made your own decision here feels uncannily similar to the comfort of having a decision made for you by someone wiser who you trust. Maybe that ‘someone wiser’ turns out to be available within. Coming to counselling can be a good way, in dialogue with another who is focused on your experience, to untangle from the noise of internalised voices telling you what to do. In the sudden silence, there’s room to hear a voice inside which has an entirely different tone. Or maybe it says nothing at all, you’re simply aware what the next thing is to be done. There’s no dilemma about inner or outer pressures, about what’s yours and what isn’t.
Whether or not you’re ultimately making the decisions, at least you start to get the rather satisfying feeling that you’re living your own life. I’m wishing this for everybody as I write!
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by