Instead of rebelling in knee-jerk ways, remember the true range of your freedom.

Sometimes, destructive patterns appeal to us because they offer the illusion of freedom. Giving into an urge gives us a phony sense of autonomy. The woman controlled by her appetite thinks, “To heck with vegetables. I’m going to eat what I want!” The man compelled by rage rationalizes, “I don’t have to put up with this!” The alcoholic says to himself, “No one is going to tell me how to live my life. If I feel like having a drink or two then I’m going to have a drink or two!” Acting on thoughts like these can feel freeing in the moment, but it permits our seemingly liberating urges to tighten their compulsive hold on us. When we’re dependent on a destructive habit for the feeling of autonomy it provides, we may be suffering from an overall sense of captivity and slavery in our lives.

We live in a reactive way responding primarily to forces beyond our own will, instead of to our own opinions, preferences and choices. We don’t like being controlled, but we lack a repertoire of more adaptive ways of asserting our independence. We can’t live like this for long without it zapping our motivation and energy. Deep down, we all yearn to direct our own lives and express our uniqueness. True autonomy is what we long for, but instead we accept a cheap imitation.


In order to give up the counterfeit, we must find more genuine ways of directing our own lives. To facilitate the process, it’s helpful to pay attention to the language we use with ourselves. We may discover that we often think and say things like, “I can’t …” or “I have to …” We always feel diminished when we treat ourselves like a captive who must be coerced instead of defending our capacity to choose as a free human being. Fortunately, we can practice catching coercive thoughts and phrases, and switching to the language of agency: “I’m free to …” or “I can …” or “I choose to …” For instance, in the morning, instead of “I have to go to work now” we can say to ourselves, “I’m free to go to work and I’m free to keep on driving. What shall I choose to do today?” Occasionally, we might alter what we end up doing as a result of giving ourselves options. Quite often we end up doing exactly what we were going to do, but now we feel free and energetic instead of resentful and dispirited in the process of doing it. In this way, our lives will become more and more wholly our own. We will be digging deeper, looking within to discover our reasons for doing things and motivations for life.

When you feel driven to react in certain ways, come up with alternatives and try one out.

Once we’re in a reactive state, we have a hard time considering ways of responding that are outside our usual restricted, reactive repertoire. Therefore, it can be an accomplishment merely to handle things differently, even when the difference is random or seemingly inconsequential. Acting differently, perhaps as we’ve never acted before, also enables us to discover that life might also respond differently to us. It can be an experiment and even if it fails, it helps us learn another thing that doesn’t work. Once we’ve tried a second time, it’s easier to try a third, and so on. We can keep experimenting until life stops giving us chances. Most people who give themselves permission to improvise, instead of reacting in old ways, are surprised by how many chances life gives them to keep tinkering until they’re satisfied with the results. When we’re in a relationship rut, responding differently can have the effect of waking both parties up to the current moment. When new step or move has been introduced into the familiar dance, both partners become alive to the freshness and are reminded that they have options. Even if the response itself doesn’t “work,” at least it’s a break from old knee-jerk, urgency-driven routines.


When you feel a compelling pull to respond in a certain way, take some time to generate a few alternative responses. Look beyond the usual flight, flee, freeze triad: If you feel like yelling, don’t just bite your tongue or storm out of the room. Instead, come up with alternatives that might surprise the other person. You might whisper what you feel like yelling or simply write it down and hand it to them. You might make an appointment with them for 20 minutes from now and take a brisk walk outside in the interim. It’s helpful to think in terms of improvisation. Even seemingly out-of-the-blue responses generated by our intuitive mind at such times can turn out to be strangely apt. As we respond differently, observe the results—not so much to see if you get the results you want, but like a patient scientist who is looking to crack the code of formerly mysterious processes.

© 2008 © 2013 Mark Chamberlain