We DO have choices in any situation!

Marcia Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), came up with an idea of four problem solving options to use in any situation.  By identifying the fact that there are various ways to solve a problem, this allows one to believe in the power of choice.  Although not all choices are ideal or even good, there is always a choice.

We've all had situations in our life in which we felt stuck, or felt like we did not have any option to make things any better, so we did nothing. But the reality is in those situations it is likely that we just didn't like the choices we had and so instead we said we had no choice.  Challenging this type of thinking can be difficult, especially if it is what we are used to doing, but it can be done and it will help you to feel more in control of your life!

DBT's four problem solving options are:

~ Do nothing. Stay miserable.

This is always an option, of course.  But is it the best option? If we're unhappy in a situation and want to make a change, but the change feels overwhelming or does not feel attainable, we often choose to do nothing instead, thus staying miserable.

~ Change the problem.

Unfortunately, this may not always be an easy option, particularly when other people or external factors are involved.  If we work for a terrible boss, but we can't quit our job, we might have the tendency to say "I can't change how awful my boss is, so I have no choice but to be unhappy every day."  Fortunately, there are times in which we CAN change the problem.  Maybe you can leave your job, maybe you can transfer departments, maybe you can speak to a higher up about your boss' behavior.  Often times there is a way to change the problem, but we may not always see it or we may not want to put in the effort to make the change. Maybe you can't change the problem, but if that is the case, the next option may be a better solution.

~ Change your response to the problem.

Yes, it is possible that you cannot actually change a problem, but you DO have control over your response to the problem.  If you're unhappy at work because your boss is awful you can choose to focus on the negatives which will in turn likely impact your mood and possibly the mood of others around you.  However, if you choose to focus on positive things or what is in your control, thereby changing your response to the problem, you may recognize this can be a better alternative to doing nothing!

~ Tolerate the problem.

If there is no way to change the problem because it is something that is unable to be changed, such as a disability or you cannot or are unwilling to change your response to a situation, you can choose to find ways to tolerate the problem.  Perhaps you cannot get a full time job because of your disability and you cannot change this problem. You may be devastated about the fact you have a disability, so you cannot change your response to the situation.  Therefore, you may have to work towards figuring out ways to tolerate the problem that you cannot get a full time job.  Linehan uses the term radical acceptance, which means simply accepting what is, exactly how it is.  You may be asking yourself how are you supposed to accept the unacceptable? Just because you do not like reality, does not mean you can change reality.  Fighting against your reality just increases your emotional suffering.  Pain is unavoidable in life as this is part of being a human; however, suffering is optional.

Although Linehan does not specifically identify this as another option, I also like to add a fifth option:

~ Make the situation worse.

If we go back to the horrible boss, it's always possible that we could choose to make the situation worse.  For example, if you showed up late every day you might get written up for this which may put your job in jeopardy and if you have bills to pay not having a job would make the situation worse.  If you come home after a long day with your terrible boss, you could choose to start drinking alcohol as a coping mechanism which may impact your relationship thereby making the situation worse.  You have control in this matter and it is your choice how to respond to the problem.


Linehan, M.M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets (2nd ed).  New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

What does this mean for my daily life?

Choices do not have to be major, life altering choices, but they can be the day to day mundane tasks that we make choices about.  We can choose to make our bed in the morning, we can choose to spend money that we don't have on coffee at the coffee shop rather than making it at home, we can choose to be irritated with our child for being too slow to put on his shoes.  All of these are choices we make on a daily basis but if we don't stop to think about the fact that we have a choice in everything we do, we often continue on with our life as is and wonder why things don't change or improve when we want them to.

It's not easy to make a shift like this, especially if it is not something you are used to doing, but I challenge you do pay more attention to your daily choices, use your mindfulness skills, and identify the fact that you DO have choices and you CAN control many of the things in your life!

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