“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”Viktor Frankl
We make choices every day. We choose what outfit we are going to wear; we choose what we are going to have for lunch or for dinner, we choose whether to take a taxi or the bus, whether to go to the gym or go home and relax. Some choices create more impact than others and may appear more difficult to make. Such as, should we purchase a car or what type of car to buy, what degree program we should study or what career path we should take or should we change our current career path and in what direction. We discuss our choices with family and friends and those closest to us, oftentimes seeking their advice or approval on major choices. As we go through life our opportunities to make choices are almost endless and inevitable. However, one choice that I believe many of us do not acknowledge, is the freedom to choose our attitude. We have the power to choose our attitude.
Reacting vs Responding
Your power to choose your attitude is one of the greatest powers you have, as well as one of your greatest freedoms; the one freedom that cannot be taken from you. Once you are able to master your attitude, you become greatly empowered and life’s circumstances and individuals lose their control over you. When you do not exercise your power to choose your attitude you relinquish that power to the circumstances or individual. You find yourself reacting to situations rather than responding.
What’s the difference? A reaction is quick and instinctive; no thought goes into it. We act without thinking, usually from the place of our subconscious mind. Simply reacting to situations can lead to poor choices and tumultuous relationships. A response on the other hand is more thoughtful, and ecological, meaning it takes into consideration those around you and engages both the subconscious and conscious mind. You think before addressing the situation or individual.
I had a recent encounter at work which demonstrated this. I was close to completing a task, when a coworker appeared with additional work for me to do. I was eager to complete what I was doing so I could attend to other things on my mounting to-do list. So when she appeared with this additional work I was annoyed and frustrated, especially because the task is extremely time consuming and takes a great deal of concentration. Thus I reacted. I must say that my coworker had no control over the work arriving when it did, she was simply the messenger. My annoyance and frustration was more than visible to my coworker who in turn also reacted. I myself was surprised by my reaction. The situation had the potential to become explosive but thankfully it did not.
Recognizing that my mood had gone awry I had to make a choice not to remain in my current mental state for the duration of the work day. I had to choose my attitude towards the work. I eventually convinced myself that being annoyed and frustrated was not going to help the situation, that the work needed to get done anyway, and the energy that I was now using up by being annoyed could be better used by channeling it into getting the work done. I chose to adjust my attitude and eventually completed the task, which as it turned out, did not take me as long as I anticipated.
“Ultimately, man is not subject to the conditions that confront him; rather, these conditions are subject to his decision.” ~ Viktor Frankl
Prisoners of Our Thoughts
I am aware that my example is a simplistic one. Many of us will be faced with major life changing and difficult situations. We may become ill or have a family member who becomes ill, we may lose our job or realize that we are unhappy in our current job, an investment may fall through or we may face betrayal or loss. In any of these circumstance the choice is the same, the power to choose our attitude.
We may be tempted to simply react or become negative or complain; allowing ourselves to remain trapped in our circumstance. Alex Pattakos, refers to it as becoming prisoners of our thoughts. He says, “By viewing ourselves as relatively powerless and driven by instinct the possibility that we can create or at least co-create our own reality becomes difficult to grasp. Instead we often lock ourselves inside our own mental prisons…In essence we become prisoners of our thoughts.”
He authored the book Prisoner of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, together with his wife Elaine Dundon.
When Frankl, who was a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, he decided, “I am responsible for living from now on in a way that I may make use of the slightest chance of survival.” Even in his darkest hour, he exercised his freedom and power to choose is attitude.
“The choices we make will impact our lives and in some cases even the lives of those closest to us”, this is a saying that I have used throughout my life. I have said it to my children and young persons with whom I come into contact, whenever I find myself in a position where I have to provide them some form of counsel or guidance. The same goes for our attitude. The choice we make regarding our attitude to life and the circumstances it may throw at us will impact our lives. It determines whether we persevere in the face of adversity or give up. It determines if we whine and complain about a situation in our lives or take action to improve it. It determines whether people enjoy being around us or duck and hide when they see us approaching, for no one really likes a consistently negative person. It determines whether we breathe life into our relationships or suck the very breath out of them. It determines whether we experience personal growth and success or we remain stagnant and die a slow death; for if we are not growing we will eventually become withered and perish.
Our attitude matters and we have the freedom and power to choose what kind of attitude we want to have. Talking about our freedom to choose a positive attitude Pattakos writes, “All of us have the freedom to make these choices but is amazing how frequently we don’t. We either choose to abstain from taking full responsibility for what should be our conscious choice or we choose albeit unconsciously to remain frozen in thought patterns that may no longer serve our highest good. In short, we become prisoners of our thoughts.
10 Positive Things
My favorite takeaway from Pattakos’ book is the 10 Positive Things exercise. I find it both practical and engaging.
It goes like this: Think of a stressful, negative or challenging situation in your life and write 10 positive things that resulted from or could result from the situation. Do not filter your thoughts for realism or social acceptance, he says. When you have completed your list review it and let the positives become possibilities in your mind. This will require letting go of your current way of thinking and even moving beyond disappointment or frustration. According to Pattakos, this exercise can open you up to a higher level of optimism, no matter how challenging your personal circumstance.
You were wonderfully created in the image of your Creator. He created us not as robots or animals but rather with the capacity to think, to process information and with the freedom and power to choose our behaviors and responses to situations (See Gen. 2:16). Your power and freedom to choose is of massive significance, don’t squander it or take it for granted. The next time you are faced with a difficult situation, take a few deep breaths and then exercise your God given power and freedom to choose your attitude and response.
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