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How Creating Change is NOT Always as Simple as ‘Make a Choice’

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Want to make a change in your life, but you’re struggling?

If you’ve arrived here, I’m guessing it’s because you’ve read this post on how the personal development field toss around this idea of ‘choice’ as though people can simply make a new choice – and you want to understand how to create change in your life. 

If so, I’m so glad you found this article.  I hope it seriously changes your life – and enables you to create the changes and the outcomes that you want.

You’ve got a 10 minutes set aside, a comfy spot and a cup of coffee or tea with you?

Fab.  Let’s get started…

To help break it down, I’m going to share what’s really governing our choices, the actual problem for people who are struggling (hint: it’s not your choices) – and what you need to really focus on instead of ‘choice’.

But first, I want to explain why understanding the contents of this post really matters if you want to create great things in your life. 

Why this Topic Matters to Me (+ Why It Should Matter to You Too if You Care About Achieving Your Goals)

I am super passionate about helping people to create what they want in their lives.

A huge barrier that I am up against is the misconceptions that people have about how to achieve their goals.

And their misconceptions are fucking up their ability to create their lives the way they want.

And then there are all the various success and New Age movements out there –  and people in the ‘belief business’ who are confusing the hell out of people about what they need to be focusing on.

So, if I’m going to make any traction in really helping people, I need to address the things that don’t work – and explain why they don’t.

And this ‘creating what you want is as simple as making a choice’ idea is one of them.

Why this ‘Make a Better Choice’ is B.S. (+ How it Messes with People)

This message is HUGELY SIMPLISTIC.

Not to mention misleading about change and success ACTUALLY happen.

Yes. Many of us can – and do – make powerful choices that lead to outcomes we want.

But that doesn’t mean that the cause of success is simply ‘making a choice’.

This myth causes people who are not free to take on the idea that it’s ‘simple’. And that they should be able to make more powerful choices. But in reality, they can’t.

(And there is a reason they can’t, which I’ll explain further on).

And because they can’t, and yet they are being told (often by ‘experts’) that they should be able to, they’re left thinking that the problem is a personal one with them.

(It isn’t).

Now, let’s be clear….

This ‘choice’ message itself can’t make someone feel powerless.

They already felt powerless before reading the so-called ‘motivational’ message.

But when they’re NOT free to choose, and they’re told to ‘make a more powerful choice’ for your life, it’s natural for them to assume that it must be THEM that’s fucked up.

(They’re not).

Not only does this myth screw with their thinking, it gives them little to work with to move forwards.

Their problem is a structural one.  And to create what they want requires a completely different thing than ‘making a choice’.

What Really Governs Our Choices + Behaviour (Hint: It ISN’T choice).

As a personal development coach, I totally understand where this ‘choice is power’ thinking comes from. I used to think – and say – the same kinds of things.

It wasn’t till I learned about structural dynamics, that I came to understand why we do what we do.

And why we struggle to make different choices and create what we want.

For all things, their behaviour is not governed by choice. It’s governed by its underlying structure.

This is true of living things and non-living things. (Including businesses and organisations).

I am not saying we don’t make choices. We do.

But our choices are governed by our underlying structure.

Given that this may be completely new to you, let me give you an analogy.

Think of behaviour like water. And the container that the water is in is the underlying structure that determines what the water is to do. 

For example, if you have a glass, the water will take the shape of the glass.  If you have a bowl, or a pipe or a series of pipes, the water will follow the rules of those structures.

When You Understand Someone’s Underlying Structure, their Behaviour Makes Complete Sense

I want to paint this for you, because most people have never been taught to think structurally, and yet it’s critical to understanding why you struggle to create what you want. 

When you understand the underlying structure that governs your behaviour – and your choices – you suddenly have powerful, life-changing insights into yourself that enable you to create change.

And we can then create a fundamental change in your underlying structure.

This gives you the ability to create whatever you want that was not available to you before.

So I’m going to use an example of an experiment you may have heard of to explain why choice ain’t so simple.

Fleas in a Jar: An Example of How Structure Governs Behaviour

Have you heard about the experiment they did with fleas?

The one where they put a bunch of them in a jar with the lid on and after a while, the fleas learned to only jump ‘so high’ so they didn’t hit the lid – and how they then took the lid off, the fleas wouldn’t jump out?

Right. That one.

The reason for their change in behaviour was not about choice.  

If it was, once the jar was open, they would have made a different choice and jumped out of the jar in search of food.

The reason was completely structural. 

With many parts.

That’s how structure often works.

It’s not one thing.  It’s the relationship between multiple elements. 

In the fleas case…  The jar. The lid. Their instinct to jump. Their instinct to survive (by heading for bleeding prey). And the pain.

They are all part of the structure.

Let’s have a look at it…

We have their instincts from their DNA.  A flea doesn’t change its basic urge to jump just because it’s put in a jar.

Neither have they lost their instinct and motivation to hunt for bleeding animals to survive.

But if we look at their behaviour, something changed for them.

They learned something.

They learned that jumping (high) hurts.

Even though we know that the lid was their problem, as far as they were concerned, the lid wasn’t the problem. 

The height they jumped was.

So they stopped.

A more sophisticated animal with an understanding of what was actually going on, like an octopus for example, would understand that the problem was the lid.

Have you seen that video of the octopus getting itself out of a jar?

What have fleas got to do with people?

If we look, given the structure, their behaviour makes complete sense.

And it’s the same for human beings.

People have underlying structures that govern their behaviour. 

These structures can be made up of a number of different elements that have relationships between one another. Making simple ‘choices’ to different actions, or make change, very difficult.

A person’s choices – regardless of whether they are powerful or not or lead to what they want or not – make complete sense, when you can see the underlying structure they’re operating from. 

If it’s not ‘choice’, how then, do we create behavioural change?

You can only create a change in the person’s behaviour (choices) when you can create a change in the underlying structure that the person operates from.

Let’s say you have a mouse in a cage that includes a series of tunnels. The mouse will run where the tunnels allow. Change the tunnel formation, and the mouse will change it’s pathway.

So too is how behaviour change works.

The same is true for everything.

For airflow, water flow, politics, organisations, animals, teams, people, businesses.


The Problem?

Most people don’t know how to see what structure they’re in – and they don’t know how to change it. 

And that’s why they either don’t move forwards, or why they go towards – and even get what they want, to only oscillate back and lose it again. 

And most people in the helping professions – coaching, mentoring, training, healing, counselling, psychotherapy, psychiatry – don’t know how to see (or work with) structure either.

Even with the best intentions, they ask irrelevant questions that don’t uncover the structure.

Not only do they ask questions that don’t lead to an understanding of what’s really going on (often because they are applying their existing theories about what they think is going on so they can’t see what’s actually there), they then offer ideas, strategies, models, methods, courses and programs to try to change behaviour without understanding what gives rise to the behaviour.

And yet, if you watch people over time…. no matter how well intentioned that they, or their helping professionals are, it often doesn’t work at creating a lasting change in behaviour or results. 

It’s not a matter of intention. It’s a matter of understanding the structural dynamics that give rise to the behaviour we’re seeing.

One of the biggest structural issues that prevents people creating what they want?

Unseen obligations.

Obligation: A Major Structural Issue that Prevents Choice

One of the big issues that prevent choice is the unconscious obligations they serve. 

To understand obligation, it helps to understand what a choice actually is.

What a Choice is

Choice by its very nature, includes a minimum of TWO potential options. 

If there is only one option, there is no choice.

That is, people are ONLY free to choose if there are at least two options.

But many people are NOT free to choose because they hold obligations that they think are true. 

(If you’ve heard me talk about ideals and concepts and how they stop you being able to create what matters to you, these are the obligations I’m talking about – and THIS is is why I’m not a fan.)

How Obligations Mess with People’s Ability to Choose

When people have ideals and concepts they’re living by, they don’t only BELIEVE these ideals and concepts are true. They KNOW that they are true. (EVEN THOUGH they aren’t.)

Think of these as rules – their ‘should’s’ and ‘have to’s’.

They are unconscious traps they have set up for themselves. They do not feel OPTIONAL to them.  As such, they serve them without question.

These concepts and ideals – many of which are picked up in childhood and young adult years – are unchallenged.

Some of the time, they know they are there – and they serve them anyway, assuming they’re true.  Other times, they are completely oblivious that they even exist.

So they cannot simply ‘make a better choice’, because they cannot let go of the obligation.

They’re completely oblivious to the option to stop serving something that seems like reality to them. 

Need an example?

Common Examples of Ideals and Concepts

Here are some common examples of ideas people have that they think are true.

  • “It’s important to fulfil my potential.”
  • “It’s important to fulfil my purpose.”
  • “I have to pay my mortgage.”
  • “I should lose weight.”
  • “I should yell at my kids less.”
  • “I should dedicate more time to my partner and our love-life.”
  • “I’m unhappy at work. I should leave.”
  • “I should ask for a pay rise.”
  • “I should start a business.”
  • “I have to look after my kids.”
  • “I have to provide the best opportunities for my kids.”
  • “I must be faithful to my wife”

These are not choices.  These are bullshit throw-away brain-murmurings, based on concepts and ideals that the person holding them has picked up somewhere.

Maybe their parents and upbringing. Maybe their life experience. Their religion or spiritual leaning. Maybe their partner. Or Social Media.

Doesn’t really matter where.

The point is, they’re obligations.

Why they are not choices

There is a seismic difference between an obligation and a choice.

Now, let me be clear….

Many of these can be genuine choices, if they are based on your true values and aspirations.

But for many people they are not.  They’re obligations, not choices.

For example, notice the difference between…

“I have to look after my kids” and “I want to look after my kids, because I love them.”

“I have to pay the mortgage” and “I want to pay the mortgage.”

“I should start a business” and “I want to start a business.”

However… it’s important to understand that it’s not simply a matter of language.

There are many personal development methods out there that advocate for changing your language to try to get your mind to get on board with you.

But if you’ve ever tried it and discovered that it only worked for a wee while before you reverted back OR it didn’t work at all, there’s a reason for that.

Simply changing your language won’t work if it’s inconsistent with your underlying structure. 

Why Simply Changing Your Language Won’t Work

But let me also be clear about something else that’s critical…

They are ONLY choices if you could also NOT do them.

Because if you think you HAVE to do them, then you aren’t doing it because you WANT to.

You’re doing it because you HAVE to.

You cannot have it both ways.

It’s EITHER a choice OR an obligation.

So simply changing your language from HAVE TO to WANT TO won’t change the fact that you’re doing it out of obligation if you still think you HAVE to do it. 

You are NOT free to choose unless you can TOTALLY GET that you could equally NOT do it as you could do it. 

Try these out….

  • “I do not have to pay the mortgage.”
  • “I do not have to pay the power bill.”
  • “I do not have to feed my children.”
  • “I do not have to love my kids.”
  • “I do not have to stop yelling at my kids.”
  • “I do not have to stay in my marriage.”
  • “I do not have to be faithful to my husband.”
  • “I do not have to go to work.”
  • “I do not have to do something meaningful with my life.”
  • “I do not have to find my purpose.”
  • “I do not have to live my potential.”

Honey….. you do not HAVE to do ANY of these things!

For a lot of people though… when it comes to a lot of these there are other deeper unconscious issues than simply a straight out change of language.

It’s not psychological. It’s STRUCTURAL.

Meet Bob: A Working Example…

We’ve talked about fleas… Let’s now use an example of how this looks with a real life person.

Let me introduce you to a fictional client: Bob.

Bob has something he wants. Financial success through his business.

Bob has a coaching business. It’s not going as well as he’d like.

He has been told by a business mentor what he needs to do to be successful, and he’s done what he’s told, but it’s not working. He’s not sure why it’s not working.

He has to turn things around soon, because it’s affecting his cashflow. He’s been trying to work out what choices he needs to make. But he can’t see what they are. Then he then reads that ‘making powerful choices’ is the key to success and he starts worrying that he’s sabotaging himself. And that it’s affecting not only his income and his future, but also that of his family’s.

He comes to a structural consulting session to find out why he’s struggling. 

Bob expresses that he has a struggle with charging good money for his services. He’s been told by his business mentor to charge higher prices. So he’s upped them.

But even though he’s trying out a new pricing plan with increased prices, he feels guilty about it.

Every time he’s on a sales call, and they get down to the money side, he’s nervous to talk money. And his potential clients feel his nervousness.

He’s worked hard on trying to banish his nervousness and to build his confidence on calls, but it hasn’t changed the fact that he feels guilty. 

We look at what he wants, and how he’s struggling with charging.

A ‘make a choice’ advocate might say ‘make the choice to be worthy’ or ‘make the choice about whether you want to charge high and make more or charge less and make less’.

But because it’s not about choice, we keep looking at what’s actually going on. 

We look deeper into why he feels guilty, and discover that among other things, Bob has a belief that he has to be a good person.  We dive deeper into why he thinks this and discover it’s because he thinks that “if he’s not good, no-one will love him and he’ll be all alone’.

As we look at it with Bob, we discover that he doesn’t really care so much about ‘being good’.

His efforts to ‘be good’ (including not charging much for his services) are being driven by the need to not be rejected and left alone. 

If one of the big structural issues – like the identity issue that Bob has – are running your life, then your ‘so-called choices’ aren’t really choices at all.

Bob cannot confront the idea of being bad and rejected and alone.

Upsetting someone and being rejection is not an option for him.

So his life is set up to avoid him being LEFT.

And, as a result his business is suffering, and his family is at risk, due to his deep fear.

We work with Bob to understand his structure – and see what’s really going on.

Bob realises that he can continue to spend his whole life avoiding being rejected (and manipulating people into liking him and staying in his life) – but failing financially – or he can value people’s freedom to reject him, and get on with charging what he wants to charge to afford the things he wants for him and his family. 

By asking him the right questions, he comes to understand himself and his previous motivations and fears. He realises the folly of his old structure, and how it was preventing him creating what he wanted.

He experiences a fundamental change in his structure that enables him to get on with charging more and creating the financial success he wants.

Why Structural Dynamics?

As a structural consultant, I’m interested in why there’s a gap between where you are, and where you want to be.  Including what’s going on that you’re not able to create what you want.

I don’t really care if you want to be good. I care about what this ‘being good’ thing has to do with your inability to create what matters to you. 

Understanding this stuff is why I got into Structural Dynamics.

I had tremendous success with the majority of my clients.

But some of them, I was genuinely struggling to help.

I couldn’t see why, despite everything I did with them, they weren’t getting the results they wanted.

They weren’t taking action. Or they’d try and it wouldn’t work. Or they would struggle with something and they’d reach out and ask for help, then not use the help.

Even though they weren’t taking the action, I couldn’t help but feel that if I was a better coach, I’d understand what was going on.

THEN I learned that behaviour isn’t governed by choice. It’s governed by our underlying structure.

Because helping people to create what they want matters to me, I decided to learn how to become a structural consultant – and to teach people about structural dynamics.

So, what about YOU?

So, if you’re someone who has been confused about why you’ve been making the ‘less than optimal’ choices you’ve been making, I hope it makes sense to you now why you’ve been doing that.

Simply having someone say ‘make a better choice’ is NOT helpful or the answer.

The answer is to discover – and creating a fundamental change in, your underlying structure.

Got a question about your own goals or structure that you want help with?  Send me an email and if I think I can help you, I’ll make a time with you to have a chat.

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Whatever you’re up to… Big love to you + to creating what matters to you!

P.S.   Got questions? Please ask. 🙂

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