Success Counseling in Action: Searching for Direction

by Barnes Boffey

This is the second in an ongoing series of blog posts dedicated to the concepts of Success Counseling and how they may be used in everyday life.

There’s an old saying that “Life doesn’t come with an instruction book,” and although factually true, we have a lot of information about how to create happy, healthy lives and how to maintain good mental health. The biggest problem is not that people don’t have instructions, but that they either don’t want to do the work it takes to follow them, or they don’t know how.

Success Counseling, building on the work of Dr. William Glasser and Choice Theory, states that we all have four basic psychological/spiritual instructions we are asked to follow as we progress through our lives. If we follow them, we will maintain our psychological balance and mental health. If we do not, there are a myriad number of ways we can and do go off track. The same is true of our physical instructions to maintain certain levels of sleep, hydration, exercise, and nutrition. When we follow them, we generally stay healthy. When we don’t, we experience discomfort, pain, and sickness.

In Success Counseling, these internal instructions are: to be loving, to be powerful, to be playful, and to be free. Rather than emphasizing what we need from the environment, the focus is on how we follow our instructions in any given situation. It is easy, for example, to feel connected and powerful, playful and free in a workplace with a supportive boss, lots of choice, and co-workers who see themselves as a team. It is more difficult to be those things when the boss is critical and rigid, and the work environment is destructively competitive.

The issue is how we perceive the cause of our pain and imbalance. External Control Psychology describes the pain we feel in this situation as coming from the situation itself (“This job makes me feel….”). Success Counseling (Internal Control Psychology) describes our pain as a function of our ability or inability to be loving, powerful, playful, and free, even in this hard situation. Of course, the situation is part of the equation, but if we can learn to be loving (connected, belonging, caring), powerful (strong, self-affirming, in control), playful (light, creative), and free (autonomous, detached) we will still have a difficult work situation, but we will be in far less pain about it. Success Counseling’s primary strength is not that it teaches us to change the world—its primary strength is to help us maintain our mental health and happiness in situations which are difficult and resistant to change.

The most resilient people are able to find new ways to follow their instructions even when the situation is very challenging. Of course, if we can find a way to change that very challenging situation, and improve our lives by altering the exterior circumstances around us, that is a wonderful and effective step, and any Success Counselor would happily accept that outcome. Unfortunately, the truth is that changing the external is often much harder (or even impossible) to do, and people spend a lot of time and energy trying to change others or alter external structures when not only is that not in the cards, but it can often exacerbate our relationship with these people and things. Instead, if we focus on changing our own behavior and our own ability to follow our instructions, we can solve the truer, deeper problem: that our unhappiness and anguish is caused by a disconnect between the person we are instructed to be, and the person we are being at that moment.

Think of a situation in which you are feeling emotional anguish or upset. Now ask yourself, “Am I being loving, powerful, playful, and free in this difficult situation?” I can pretty much guarantee that the answer in most cases is “No!” In response, we might say, “But it’s not appropriate to be that way in this situation. How can I be loving or powerful the situation is so heart-wrenching, sad, or unfair?” This is the crux of the matter with Internal Control Psychology. Regardless of the situation, our personal mental health and happiness is primarily a function of how well we follow our instructions.

There is often profound conflict as we move in the direction of accepting our role in our own emotional pain, because one way to connect with others, and to feel strong, and to feel free is the process of blaming and playing the victim. This is a very common attempt to follow our instructions—unfortunately it ends up being an ineffective attempt. There are ineffective ways to follow our instructions and effective ways; learning the difference is one of the great challenges in every person’s life.

This is not to say that there are not situations in which anyone would have huge difficulty finding ways to follow their instructions. This is not a model that blames people when they don’t know what to do or can’t pull it off. It simply describes what has to happen if we want to be in emotional balance.

I once did Success Counseling training in an Oklahoma Correctional Facility with a group of inmates who were all there with life sentences. Clearly, their external reality would change very little in the years ahead. But I have never found a group of people hungrier for these ideas and more able to see the power this thinking afforded them as they attempted to live lives full of strength, love, playfulness, and freedom—especially freedom “in” rather than freedom “from.”

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