The Law of 3 Choices states that when you are experiencing unpleasant emotion or pain, there are only three things you can do: (1) Face reality skillfully, early and often; (2) Suppress it; or (3) Wallow in it.
Because being aware of the pain is unpleasant, it is natural to try to avoid that option by pretending there is another option that will lead to less suffering. However, the Law of 3 choices claims there are only two other choices and, furthermore, that these actually cause more suffering than the first option.
Imagine stepping on a thorn. There are a set of physical sensations we call pain. What happens next? If we face the pain (choice #1, quadrant 3 intimacy strategy), we will find ourselves looking at the painful spot, and solve the problem by pulling out the thorn. Ideally, we do one other thing as well: we learn the lesson if there is one. In this case, that lesson might be to wear shoes in the garden, move the rosebush, etc. So, choice #1 leads us to listen to the pain, gather information, remediate if we can, and then learn the lesson so we don’t repeat the mistake (if it’s under our control to make such a change).
If we try to avoid the pain by suppressing it (choice #2, a quadrant 2 aggression strategy), we might do so by pretending we are not feeling the pain (imagine someone with pain who is afraid of a cancer diagnosis and thus does not go to their doctor), so we walk around until the wound gets infected and we have a chance to repeat the 3 choices. By the way, “positive thinking” can sometimes play the role of suppression (it’s a quadrant 1 passion strategy). This occurs when people try to simply legislate pleasant emotion by demanding positive thinking of themselves: “if you think there’s pain, then there’s pain; if you choose to believe that your foot is not in pain, it will not be.” This focus on ignoring pain can be seen in Kahlil Gibran’s approach to a rose.
I have observed this in some people dedicated to mindfulness meditation when they wear their spirituality like a status symbol, a tendency called “spiritual materialism”. These are folks who think that being mindful means being happy and so they may adopt a permanent half-smile to show the world how enlightened or advanced they are (here is a funny video on this issue). I have even heard a story told of a monk who stayed in meditative “equanimity” as a moxa (an herb used in acupuncture) fell from a needle and burned his skin. The story was used an example of his skill in mindfulness but it probably seems clear to most of us that this is a form of stupidity: it is ignoring a really clear signal (in this case physical pain) that it’s time to remove the burning herb from your skin. This story makes the premise of walking around with a thorn in our foot a little more plausible! In any case, if you are someone who often uses this approach to cope with the unpleasant things that happen in life, consider reading this article on unrealistic optimism and this article on suffering and enlightenment.
If we wallow in the pain (choice #3, a quadrant 2 aggression strategy), we might do so by focusing on self-criticism (a popular choice in our culture): “What an idiot! I can’t believe you went into the garden without goes!” Meanwhile, we’re practicing self-criticism (which, by the way, is almost always inaccurate especially when interdependence is taken seriously) and actually not dealing with the actual problem (the thorn) nor learning the lesson needed for the future (wear shoes). This option seems absurd with the thorn, but I have treated many people with depression who respond similarly to a bad test grade or a negative interaction with their boss. Instead of figuring out what behavior needs to change (e.g., study harder), they get busy practicing (and getting better and better at) their habit of self-criticism.
The Law of 3 Choices essentially says, deal with the current pain in a skillful way (choice #1) or cause more suffering for yourself and/or others. Given the fact that life does involve pain and unpleasant emotion, it’s a good idea to learn how to make choice #1 as often and skillfully as possible. Notice that facing the unpleasant and skillfully dealing with it can occur entirely internally or can involve communicating with others. In other words, choice #1 involves intimacy strategies: ways of knowing ourselves and others intimately. What does that look like?
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