For most of my life, I was a strong believer in conventional psychology, which is based on the teachings of Sigmund Freud. In today’s zany world, however, conventional psychology is linked more closely with Oprah the Magnificent than Freud.
Oprahian psychology focuses on finding the psychological roots of an individual’s problems, preferably by his mentally disrobing himself before millions of television viewers. The idea is that once a person’s past traumas are brought to the surface and dissected, he will be able to change his attitude toward life and, in turn, alter his behavior.
There’s no question that most people’s emotional problems have their roots in the past, usually in childhood experiences. But my attitude toward traditional psychotherapy changed when I began learning about “reality therapy,” a psychotherapy method created by Dr. William Glasser.
A reality therapist believes that fulfilling one’s needs is concerned only with an individual’s present life. It has nothing to do with his past, no matter how traumatic his experiences may have been. Reality therapy acknowledges the existence of past problems, but views them as unimportant when it comes to fulfilling one’s present needs.
The corollary to this is that if you learn to fulfill your needs in the present, the past no longer matters. A perfect example of this would be an individual who has experienced a bad first marriage. The sooner such an individual can find happiness in a second marriage, the sooner his first marriage will become a distant memory.
To the reality therapist, then, it’s a waste of time (sorry about that, Oprah) to sit around and lament about what has happened to you in the past and continue to use old traumas as an excuse for your present unhappiness. The only things you can change are your thoughts and actions of today.
Reality therapy teaches that the key to fulfilling one’s needs is responsible behavior. As Dr. Glasser puts it, “Happiness occurs most often when we are willing to take responsibility for our behavior. … Responsible behavior leads to a feeling of self-worth.”
But isn’t “responsible behavior” a subjective term? This question brings to the fore the age-old relativist argument that everything in life is subjective. Millions of clueless kids bought into the lie of relativism in the ’60s, only to end up dead or with shattered lives.
The truth of the matter is that every halfway intelligent adult knows the difference between responsible and irresponsible behavior. I would argue that the vile behavior that is extolled day in and day out on television – much of it under the protective shadow of the First Amendment – does not lead to happiness.
Civilization cannot exist without a generally accepted code of conduct. It is the code of conduct of Western culture that made it the most civilized and prosperous civilization in the history of mankind.
In other words, responsible behavior pretty much coincides with practicing the virtuous traits that are the bedrock of Western life. It is obvious to all civilized people that responsible behavior is demonstrated through such traits as hard work, saving for the future, civility, loyalty, respect and honesty, to name but a few.
The bottom line is that we have the capacity, through free will, to control how we think and act today. And we are the only living creatures that have the ability to change the nature of our existence by altering events.
It is free will that makes behavioral modification possible. For example, I smoked until I was in my late 20s, but I stopped – cold turkey – in one day. My decision to stop smoking was not based on my gaining a deeper understanding of my past. Through free will, I was able to modify my behavior by accepting reality and employing one of the most important of all responsible traits – self-discipline.
Whatever it is that you don’t like about your present life – be it business or personal – don’t make the mistake of sitting around and blaming it on the past. Just as important, don’t feel that you have to get at the deeply rooted, underlying causes of your problems. Just be thankful that Oprah hasn’t asked you to share your painful past with her mesmerized fans.
I don’t know you personally, but I’m willing to bet you can tell the difference between right and wrong. I would also wager that you can differentiate between responsible and irresponsible behavior. And I have absolutely no doubt that you, as a human being blessed with the awesome faculty of free will, have the capacity to take action – today – to do the right thing.
No matter how smart you may think that loyal pooch lying on the floor next to your chair is, the reality is that he can’t do much to change his existence. He’d probably do anything to have your free will, but, alas, he’s doomed to serving his master all his life.
I brought man’s best friend into the picture – though I recognize that you may not own a canine – to graphically remind you just how fortunate you are to be a human being. To not exploit the unique power you possess to alter your life for the better is to drastically short-change yourself.
Free will is the gift that keeps on giving. The only question is whether or not the recipient chooses to use it wisely.