The Empowerment of Choice

The ultimate freedom is the right to choose my attitude in any given situation.
Viktor Frankl

Teaching young people about choice-response thinking, that they need not be victims, may be one of the most valuable thinking patterns we can give them. Students become more responsible when they learn that in almost any situation, or with any stimulus, or with any impulse or urge, they still have freedom to choose a response.



We all experience situations that are beyond our control, either momentarily or permanently. We are confronted with weather and other natural forces, with inconveniences, unpleasant assignments, unrewarding family or work relationships, and numerous situations that we cannot change. However, we can choose our responses to these situations.

Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, experienced situations beyond his control. Yet, he taught that a person has the power to choose his thinking, his independence of mind, even in the most terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. Although conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food, and various mental stresses suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it became clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision—not the result of camp influences alone. Even under such extreme circumstances, a person still has one freedom: “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to chose one’s own way.”


In addition to having the freedom to make a choice in a situation over which we have little control, we also have the freedom to make a choice after something stimulates us. This is the case when a parent smiles at the infant, and the infant smiles back. Such stimuli become less “automatic” with growth, as when the parent smiles at the teenager, but the teenager does not reciprocate with a like facial expression. Assume for a moment that you are looking forward to watching a special broadcast on television. You have had your dinner, are comfortably reclining, and are engrossed in the program. The telephone rings. You can choose to answer it, or choose to let it ring, or choose to let the telephone-answering device respond to the call.

Similarly, when you are driving and approach a red light in a busy intersection, you choose to stop. Your initial response to answering a phone which rings or stop at a red light are learned responses to stimuli. None of these stimuli makes a person do anything. Consciously or nonconsciously, we choose our responses to stimuli. These examples of reactions are everyday occurrences in daily living. In practical application, it doesn’t make a particle of difference if these reactions are conscious or nonconscious. There is a problem, however, when we think our responses are automatically controlled by external stimuli. The harm comes when, by implication, we think that the ringing of the phone or the stopping at a red light causes us to react—as if an outside force or person causes our behavior.

This same choice-response situation is operating when stuck in traffic, and we start to get angry. The traffic does not care; it is simply a situation which stimulates us. We allow ourselves to become angry. We could play a tape, a compact disk, or listen to the radio. We could think about past pleasant thoughts or future plans. We can choose our responses to situations—as unpleasant as the situation may be.

Anyone who has lived with another person for any length of time discovers that no one can really make or cause another person to change. People change themselves. The environment can certainly be established where the person wants to change. This is the reason why very young people do things adults would like them to do. Youngsters value adults and want to please them. This is also true in the classroom. Young students like their teachers. Unfortunately, many teachers and parents use rewards and punishments thinking that these external manipulators cause young people to change.

When confronted by a stimulus, a person needs to realize that a choice of responses exists. Imagine that in a classroom the teacher sees a student hitting another student. The teacher did not see the first student do the instigating; the teacher only saw the retaliation of the second student and calls him on it. The youngster tells the teacher, “He made me do it.” Even though this student was stimulated to act, he still made the choice to hit back. No one else made the choice for him. The student had the freedom to choose a response, and he chose hitting. Students need to learn that regardless of the stimulus, each person still has some choice of responses.


We also have the freedom to choose our response to an impulse or urge. Infants are given diapers to wear because they are not able to control their natural urges. As they grow, diapers are no longer needed. We learn to respond to our physiological urges. The same holds true for emotional impulses. When we become angry, there is a moment of awareness before the emotion takes over—before we become “emotionally hijacked.” As normal, healthy individuals—at that moment—we can exercise some choice of response. A response will occur, but the how, when, or where is often our choice.

Freedom to choose one’s response is fundamental in a civil society. It is incumbent upon the adults of our society to teach young people that they have a choice in controlling their behaviors and that it is in young people’s own best interests to choose appropriate responses.

Regardless of the situation, the stimulus, or the impulse, people choose their responses. To do otherwise means we would operate from compulsion. Jeffry Schmitt, a UCLA psychiatrist refers to the beauty of being human, and not a rat or monkey. The difference is that humans need not succumb to our emotions every single time. The less we succumb, the less we are bothered by tyrannical obsessions.

Because we have the freedom to choose our responses, we are responsible for our own choices (behaviors). By teaching young people that they choose their own behaviors, they begin to become conscious of the fact that no one else chooses their behaviors for them. Choice-response thinking encourages self-control, self-discipline, and responsibility. In addition, having young people become aware of choice-response thinking can have a liberating effect, especially with those who feel they are helpless or victims.


As a young student explains his report card to his parents, he says, “No use debating environment versus genetic causes. Either way, it’s your fault.” As mentioned, Teaching young people about choice-response thinking—that they need not be victims—may be one of the most valuable thinking patterns we can give them.

Victim-type thinking is counterproductive to engendering responsibility. Examples of such thinking can be heard in comments such as, “He made me do it,” “I couldn’t control myself,” “I couldn’t help it, and “I had no choice.” Merely being aware that such thinking relinquishes control has an empowering effect.

A student has a test returned. The student did not do well and concludes, “I’m not good in this subject.” The student sees a flaw in himself that he believes is beyond his control and becomes pessimistic. He gives up; he stops trying. Another student, an optimist, who receives the same grade concludes, “I guess that means I should have studied more.” This student sees a setback as something over which he has control. The critical difference between optimistic thinking and pessimistic thinking has to do with the perception of control which, in turn, depends upon perception of choice. We feel psychologically healthy when we believe we have choices.

Research on the value of choice is solid. Our brain generates different chemicals when we feel optimistic and in control than when we feel pessimistic and a loss of control or power.

Choice, control, and responsibility are so woven together that one significantly affects the others. Make a choice, and control is enhanced. Fail to choose, and control is diminished. The more responsibility that is chosen, the more control follows. Deny responsibility, and control is given up. We become responsible by exercising choice-response thinking. This realization can play a dominant role in how a person directs one’s life.

People who regard themselves as victims do not see themselves as in control and often see the world as unfair to them in particular. Whatever happens in their lives only happens to them—as if they have no choice as to their responses. Victimhood people are often angry people. People who have chosen to regard themselves as victims cannot allow themselves to be happy because being happy would challenge their perceptions as victims. Such was the case on October 1, 1997, when a 16-year old in Pearl, Mississippi, came on to his high school campus and shot two students. When chased and caught by the school’s assistant principal, the teenager was asked “Why?” The shooter replied, “The world has wronged me.” Lack of a feeling of control is a prime factor in young people’s anti-social behavior.

In an attempt to assist students with special needs, new categories of disabilities have been created. Students are labeled and classified with behavioral disorders. Too often, socially disruptive behavior is viewed as a “condition,” resulting in students” being excused for socially irresponsible behavior. Thus, viewed through the prism of special handicaps, these students are too often not held accountable for irresponsible behavior.

When these students leave school and behave in socially unacceptable ways, giving excuses such as, “I’m compulsive,” and “I couldn’t help it” do not impress law enforcement or society generally. A disservice will have been done to these students because the school world in which they have grown up is unlike the greater society. All young people need to learn that they have the freedom to choose their responses and that they will be held accountable for their choices.

Language shapes our thinking, particularly when it comes to self-talk. Taking conscious control of inner chat can act like a magic wand to shift to more empowering mental states. Victimhood is the result of thinking of outside forces rather than internal responses. Common thinking patterns are “Someone else is at fault,” “Something else caused my behavior; I am not responsible for it,” and “I’m a victim.”

Young people can be taught to self-talk in enabling and self-powering ways. Phrases such as “prompts me” and “stimulates me” can be substituted for the powerless “made me” and “caused me.” Additional words that reduce “victim” thinking are references to “influence,” “persuade,” “arouse,” “irritate,” “annoy,” “pique,” and “provoke.” These words do not give away power; they merely describe the effect on oneself.

Another strategy to reduce powerlessness is to change adjectives into verbal forms. Notice the difference between, “I am angering, and “I am angry.” As soon as we phrase it as an action, we become immediately aware of a choice.

Also, instead of thinking, “The task is too difficult” young people can be taught to take charge by eliminating the “too” and by changing the word “difficult” into “challenging,” thus “The task is challenging.” Another more subtle language pattern is the ill use of “try.” “Try’ merely conveys an attempt. Self-talk should convey commitment. A person does not get out of bed by trying to get out of bed or make a phone call by trying to call. You get out of bed and you make a call. This type of self-talk is the hallmark of success. As Henry Ford so aptly put it, “If you think you can, you can; if you think you can’t, you can’t. Either way you are right.”

Another approach that can be used is to teach young people to ask themselves proactive questions. “What would be the best way to act in this situation?” “How can I best respond to that?” “How can I prevent that urge from directing my behavior?” These types of questions empower people and assist in fostering individual as well as social responsibility.

It is no kindness to treat people as helpless, inadequate, or victims—regardless of what has happened to them. Kindness is having faith in people and treating them in a way that encourages and empowers them to handle their situations, stimulations, and urges.


  • People can choose their attitudes and responses to any situation, stimulus, or impulse.
  • Students should be taught they are products of their choices as well as their circumstances.
  • Teaching young people about choice-response thinking—that they need not be victims—may be one of the most valuable thinking patterns we can give them.
  • The critical difference between optimistic thinking and pessimistic thinking has to do with the perception of control which, in turn, depends upon perception of choice.
  • Choice, control, and responsibility are so woven together that one significantly affects the others.
  • Students can be taught to self-talk in enabling and self-powering ways.