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Life’s Imaginary Prison Bars

Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space.
In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.
In our response likes our growth and our happiness.
1

Inked Pixels/Shutterstock
Source: Inked Pixels/Shutterstock

The above three lines were discovered in a university library by the late Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, while he was on a writing sabbatical in Hawaii. Unfortunately, Covey was unable to retrieve the name of the author and was unable to give proper attribution to the source of this meaningful quotation. Since he felt strongly that his discovery reaffirmed the essential teachings of the world-renowned psychiatrist and existential philosopher, Viktor Frankl, Covey included the lines in his foreword to Prisoners of Our Thoughts, a book that I am proud to say was written at Frankl’s personal urging. Moreover, like millions of people, Covey’s own life and work had been influenced significantly by Frankl. Although Frankl is often misquoted as being the source of these insightful words, he famously espoused and taught a very similar “freedom of will” message.

In this connection, Frankl believed in what he called the “last of the human freedoms”—the ultimate freedom to choose our attitude. Although human beings may not be in control of the conditions or situations that confront us, the important thing is that we can choose how we respond, at least through our choice of attitude. According to Frankl, this is not only our right as human beings, it is our full human beingness to be free in this manner. All we have to do is resist the temptation of remaining “prisoners of our thoughts” and choose this freedom, no matter what.

Of course, for many, if not most, of us, exercising the freedom to choose our attitude is easier said than done. By viewing ourselves as relatively powerless and driven by instinct, we often lock ourselves inside our own mental prisons. Physician Deepak Chopra, in the audiotape of his book Unconditional Life, says, “We erect and build a prison, and the tragedy is that we cannot even see the walls of this prison.”2 Yet we can reshape our patterns of thinking. Through our own search for meaning, we can unfreeze ourselves from our limited perspective, find the key, and unlock the door of our metaphorical prison cell. Only in this way can we truly see this principle in action and benefit from its practical application in our everyday life and work.

I recall a conversation that I had with one reader of our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, who happened to be a medical doctor. He said, “Alex, I really like your book. I only have one question. I don’t really understand the first principle: ‘Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude.’ Why would I want to do that if I already have an attitude?” Fortunately, after some discussion, the meaning behind the principle was revealed to him and he has been able to use it effectively in his medical practice (e.g., as a way to improve doctor-patient communications) and in his personal life ever since.

Just in case some of you are also wondering if you can exercise the freedom to choose your attitude, here is a quick exercise that, I promise, can and will help you to do so.

Whenever you confront a situation that is especially stressful, negative, or challenging, I want you to take a deep breath and list “ten positive things” that are or could be associated with (or could/did result from) this particular situation. That’s right, I said ten positive things! Stretch your imagination and suspend judgment, listing whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly, far out, or unrealistic your thoughts may appear to be. Feel completely free to determine or define what “positive” means to you and recruit family members, friends, colleagues, co-workers, etc., to help you with your list, if necessary.

After you’ve completed your list, look at it closely, and let the positive become possible in your frame of reference regarding the situation. Sometimes this is very hard to do. It requires a letting go of old ways of thinking, pain, remorse, disappointment, frustration, perhaps even grief and anguish.

It’s time to go inward, take a look at myself.
Time to make the most of the time that I’ve got left.
Prison bars imagined are no less solid steel
.3

Experience has shown that this simple exercise opens you up to deep, true optimism no matter how challenging your circumstances. In all cases, people come to acknowledge that they are free to choose their attitude and view their circumstance(s) from many different perspectives. And, no matter how desperate the situation or condition confronted, everyone ultimately acknowledges that something positive could result from it. Importantly, through this exercise, people learn an effective way to release themselves, at least partly, from their self-imposed thought prisons.4

Remember, although we may not be totally free from the various conditions or situations that confront us—in our personal and work lives—the important thing is that we can choose how we respond, at the very least through our choice of attitude. Frankl’s life gives us rich and ample evidence that the keys to freedom from life’s prison cells—real and imagined—are within, and within reach.5

References

1. Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, pp. x-xi.

2. See Chopra, D. (1991). Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams. New York: Bantam Books, p. 19.

3. Crowell, Rodney (2003). “Time to Go Inward,” Fate’s Right Hand. Sony Music Entertainment. See also: Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, pp. 53-54.

4. For more information about the “Ten Positive Things” Exercise, including illustrations of how it has been and can be used, as well as about the core principle upon which it is based, see: Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd edition. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, pp. 36-43.

5. Even if you don’t see the cognitive or emotional benefits of maintaining a positive attitude toward a situation you are facing, please consider the physiological benefits. One of the real powers of positive thinking is that it is good for your health!

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