Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
May 2009 - Volume 09, No. 5
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Thirteen Options

When a person has only one choice in a given situation, it’s said that person is a prisoner. When there are two choices, one is in a dilemma. But when there are three or more options available, then he or she begins to experience the fullness of human freedom. [1]

I’ll ask a client the simple question, “What other choices to you have?” And often the answer is “None.” That first (singular) choice is characteristic of the most primitive part of our brain structure - the primitive automatic response part where our choices are basically survival oriented - fight, flee or freeze. That primitive part is often called the reptilian brain. [2] There’s no freedom there, only visceral response (or non-response). Often when anxiety gets high, either in an individual or a group, this is where everybody goes. When in doubt, defend - find an enemy and fight.

Frequently with conflicted couples in my office, the ‘natural’ conflict response is mutual “attack and defend.” This is the response of our reptilian brain. In the “natural world,” as perceived by regressed (anxious) humans, it’s not a far step from “attack and defend” to “attack and kill.”

One thing I’ll do, to help unstick that “only one choice” mentality, is ask “What other choices do you have?” Although it sounds like a simple question, the response is often confusion and an increase in anxiety - sometimes even hostility. “Only one choice” takes on the character of a “spell” cast upon the person. A significant example is the national spell we were in just after 9/11. Choices were easy because we had only one choice. We were attacked; we have to attack back. Any fifth-grade student of international law knows that. And we’ve been at “war” ever since.

One great purpose of mental health is to prevent us from “going primitive” when conflicts present themselves to us. Sometimes we call it “anger management.”

The next higher brain function, the limbic system [3], is the source of our ability to think and feel. This gives us additional choices in a given situation. Bear in mind that “fight or flee or freeze” is not a feeling. It’s a response, a visceral response that precedes any thinking and feeling. When our “back is against the wall” it usually takes a lot of effort to engage our thinking and feeling brain.

The question “what others choices...?” is meant to engage that second brain. At this point a duality of choices emerges. Here choices can become right or wrong, black or white, win or lose, good or evil. Sometimes it’s a challenge just to get a person (or couple) just to the “two choice” place. This second brain can deal with dilemmas, at least to begin to consider the matter of two choices. With two choices, there’s hope for some dialogue and change.

Some months ago I was in an upscale “pub” with a friend. We were enjoying a stimulating conversation - the philosophical kind that goes well with Guinness, a large plate of fancy appetizers, and plaid-skirted waitresses. He became increasingly heated in his opinions, and that heat soon invited the participation of nearby patrons and a few waiters as well. It was a jolly good time. However, the conversation had reduced itself to a matter of only two positions, which was why it fit so well in the larger company of drinking men. (That was a new insight for me.) Basically it degenerated into an “ain’t it awful” ( us vs them ) foray. And there was no awareness that I was sitting in silence by that time.

The next step is to transcend that “two choice” dualistic thinking. This is where the true sense of human freedom emerges. When there are at least three choices, the highest portion of the human brain, the cerebral or neocortex, begins to be engaged. This is the place where the Big Picture can be comprehended. This is where pattern rather than just information is perceived. It’s the place of human genius, creativity and good old American common sense. Here we don’t get caught in dualisms, in the battles over data, in the projecting of opposition onto other people. This is where knowledge can rise to the level of wisdom. This is where becoming a fully responsible person arises beyond simple win/lose, right/wrong, black/white options.

At the more practical level of a therapist’s office, what I’ll push for in a given situation is “thirteen choices.” Now, when someone is in crisis or anxious, this will seem impossible. Then I’ll remind them that these choices don’t necessarily have to be practical, logical, sensible, legal or rational. They just have to be “choices.” Clients will often say “Oh, I could never do that.” I’ll say, it’s not that I would want or expect you to do it, just that it’s an option. Sometimes I’ll give this as “homework” to make me such a thirteen choice list.

Afterwards, the client’s frequent response is that once he or she got beyond three or four choices, new options began to just flow off the pencil and onto the paper.

Why the number thirteen? Twelve is a complete number, and should be plenty enough. But I want to “bend” it just a bit more into the wildness that the number thirteen represents.

And so I recommend to the rest of you as well, always go for “thirteen options” in a given situation. First go for three (that’s the hardest), then you can let your brain fly free. You’ll be exercising the highest part of your brain, you’ll find yourself breathing more deeply, and it will be harder to be anxious. You’ll be a lot more fun to be around as well.

Pay attention - and enjoy! It works.


[1] Source unknown to me. Also I use the terms choice and option interchangeably here.
[2]&[3] Here I'm borrowing the structure of Paul D. MacLean's Triune Brain thesis, formulated in the 1960's

Comments (4)

  • Many thanks for your prompt answer. I miss him and I hope, for his sake (and mine because of my guilt and shame in leaving him), he find peace and the generosity and vulnerability one needs to connect with people. He is a brilliant man, but he is divorced from his feelings. I am holding on too hard to something, and I have to pull myself away to see what else lies out there.

    — Annie, 6/13/2014
  • 2nd response to Annie

    Good response Annie.
    However, I’d suggest that your “guilt and shame” are false companions for this journey.

    — Bill McDonald, 6/13/2014
  • I found your blog extremely useful as I am trying to figure out whether to stay in my marriage or not. I am in therapy and there are signs that my husband is a narcissist. Despite various attempts to leave, I come back to him based on his promises. The promises, of course, are not kept. Yet I love him. I really find that your observation that when we are stressed and anxious, we fail to see the full range of our choices. I have always missed options when I find myself scared, although when I stay calm I can surprise myself. In this situation, I am completely failing to see my options. I don’t know how to figure out whether to stay or to leave. I don’t trust him to keep his end of the bargain if do stay--if I were to put it bluntly. Do you have any ideas?

    — Annie, 6/13/2014
  • Response to Annie

    You say “I am completely failing to see...” I sense by the absolute used here that you are rather ‘trying not to see.’ You don’t trust him (trust yourself on that) and you “love him.” We all know of situations when what attracts us is also what will kill us. And, of course, we seek by way of denial or distortion to find ourselves an exception. Why do you think there are so many teenage funerals.
    I would say you already know. The struggle is what to DO with what you know.
    That space between knowing and doing is often a place of confusion. But one of my trainers, years ago said "Confusion is the doorway to a new reality. And the old one probably sucked anyway."
    So don’t betray yourself anymore. I’ve given you the map.

    — Bill McDonald, 6/13/2014

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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