The Perils of Choice

In 21st Century life, choice dominates every area of life. In the east, people are organizing and rebelling against tyrants and injustice because they want the power to make their own choices. (What exactly those choices will be is a matter for another discussion.) In the west, people are choosing new and improved gadgets, phone plans, automobiles and spouses in the pursuit of self-fulfillment through the power of choice. There is an undisputed assumption that freedom to make choices is empowering and liberating. On a superficial level, we derive satisfaction and validation through making even simple choices – just ask your local shopaholic. On a deeper level, we believe choice brings with it the possibility of social change and personal growth, and enables people to become the masters of their own destinies, rather than slaves to the choices of others.

But psychoanalysts have reached the counterintuitive conclusion that instead of being empowering, the notion, whether real or imagined, that you can do anything, can sometimes be paralyzing. Open-ended, unbridled, unhinged choice actually becomes psychologically oppressive, both on an individual and societal level, stymying social change and personal growth. It turns out the constant need to seek self-validation by exercising the power of choice doesn’t make you a master. It merely enslaves you in a different way. It enslaves you to yourself.

The paralyzing anxiety of choice manifests in different ways, depending on the psychology of the individual. Often, the choices we make are not ours at all, but choice influenced by what others are choosing, or fueled by our concern with how our choice will be perceived by others. Sometimes we become so obsessed with making the perfect choice that we either choose not to decide, or are constantly changing our minds. And choice also implies that we have to abandon the alternatives, which brings with it a sense of loss that can be overwhelming. For all these reasons and others, the power of choice can become a burden rather than a privilege, a suffocating obstacle rather than a springboard for change.

Choice is probably the most powerful gift we have. But clearly it has its pitfalls as well. The only way to avoid them is to ask ourselves what it is we really want. Whatever the answer is to this question, all the other choices we make become subservient to it. In this context, choice is no longer unhinged and chaotic, but disciplined. Answering this question also implies that we live our lives in a manner that is consistent with the objective we want to achieve. So it is also principled choice based on something more than our whims or psyches. Choice becomes guided and directed within the framework of the destination we are working toward, and the values that make it important. Rather than limit us, the boundaries and guidelines set ground rules that liberate us from the potential perils and paralysis of unhinged choice. The real potential of choice is then available to us, enabling us to make healthy choices grounded in reality that lead to social change and personal growth.

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