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TO: Dr. Joe Scarcella
FROM: Phil Fournier
RE: 502/503, Choice Theory book report, Fournier

William Glasser, MD, is the founder and leader of the William Glasser Institute in Chatsworth, California.  He is a prolific writer with some very interesting alternative explanations for psychological phenomena and behavior.  Beside writing Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom (the subject of this book report) he wrote the following books:

1.      The Quality School

2.      Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health

3.      Control Theory: A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives

4.      Counseling with Choice Theory, Getting Together and Staying Together: Solving the Mystery of Marriage

5.      Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry

6.      For Parents and Teenagers : Dissolving the Barrier Between You and Your Teen

7.      Stations of the Mind: New Directions for Reality Therapy

8.      The Quality School Teacher: A Companion Volume to The Quality School

9.      Staying Together: The Control Theory Guide to a Lasting Marriage

10.  Schools Without Failure

11.  The Language of Choice Theory

12.  Unhappy Teenagers: A Way for Parents and Teachers to Reach Them

13.  The Control Theory Manager

14.  Positive Addiction

15.  Identity Society

16.  Fibromyalgia: Hope from a Completely New Perspective

17.  Every Student Can Succeed

18.  What Is This Thing Called Love?

19.  Take Effective Control of Your Life

20.  Reclaiming Literature

21.  Mental Health or Mental Illness

22.  Control Theory in the Practice of Reality Therapy: Case Studies

23.  The effect of school failure on the life of a child

 (I have to believe there is a great deal of duplication in the content of these books.  There are more of these books listed but the titles are so similar I’m not sure they are a different book.)


This book was a refreshing change from the Dan Millman book.  It was radically different from almost everything I have heard before, but it made a lot of sense on an intuitive level.  Dr. Glasser’s premise is (put in my own words) that most of the misery in life comes from failed relationships; that getting along with others is our problem, and without training, our solution to the problem is trying to control other people.  But we cannot control other people really; all we can do is control ourselves.  In trying to control other people, depending upon how resistant they are to being controlled (their own “need strengths”) we end up making either ourselves or the other person miserable.


Quote from the story of Tina “It’s up to me, isn’t it?”  “It always is.  That’s choice theory – it’s up to you.” Pg. 171


I found the title of the book to be a continual stumbling block to my understanding and I wish the author had chosen something different than the word “theory” though the word “choice” certainly fits very well.  But setting that aside, Dr. Glasser does an excellent job of making his case that what he calls “external control psychology” is a damaging influence and needs to be replaced with his “choice theory”.  There was much of the book that was difficult for me, having never had a class in psychology and knowing very little about the science of the mind.  But perhaps this was a net-positive, because I sense that what the author says would greatly offend many psychiatrists.  I insert here the illustration he used regarding the prescribing of the drug Prozac to treat depression or what he calls “depressing.”  He looks at the chemical imbalance problem to be a symptom, not a cause of depression.  He illustrates this by using the analogy of a runner who comes back from a run sweating.  Someone might ask them “why are you sweating?” to which they would respond “because I have been running.”  No one would think of telling them they were running because of the sweat.  Dr. Glasser puts depression on the same level as running by making it a verb “you are depressing” just like the verb we understand better “you are running.”  In like manner, he says that as sweat is the body’s response to physical activity, so chemical imbalance in the brain is a result of depressing, a mental activity according to him.  I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet there are plenty of psychologists who would go nuts if this were suggested to them as a possibility.


“Choice theory does not deny that people have complaints, but it teaches that the only persons we can control are ourselves.  We cannot control anyone else, including our counselors, with these complaints.”


Though the above statement was pretty clear after I was well into the book, I wish the doctor had started with illustrations earlier in the book because I felt pretty lost for the first 50 pages.  Then he gave the illustration of Todd, the middle aged man who lost his young wife by being a control freak (domineering) and she finally got fed up.  That illustration would have been helpful at the beginning of the book, I think.  But from there on things were easier to understand, particularly the “illustration” of Francesca from The Bridges of Madison County.  Or, was the book and film based on the story from this book?  I don’t know and I went through the introduction to the story multiple times trying to figure out if he just used that story to illustrate his point or if it was a true story.  Based on the date of publishing in this book, I would assume that Dr. Glasser adapted the book to work for his illustration purposes.  In either case, it was a useful illustration of the mechanisms that one uses to cope with an unhappy life and how a therapist might redirect a person’s thoughts to something he or she can control.


“I don’t believe it does any good to revisit the past in the hope of finding something there that corresponds to the present problem.  I disagree with the psychiatric thinking that you can learn from past misery.  When you focus on the past, all you are doing is revisiting the misery.  One trip through the misery is more than enough for most people.”


I really appreciated the above point and the doctor’s subsequent thoughts on creativity and supposed suppressed memories.  I have always been skeptical (from a distance having had no real experience with it myself) of those who claimed to have remembered forgotten abuses with the help of a therapist.  Additionally, I liked his premise that agonizing over a past which is gone and done with and cannot be changed is hardly a useful exercise.  I have had my own share of sorrows in life and dwelling on them, while a tempting exercise, is not a useful one as far as dealing with the present and future.  As the doctor points out, we can only make choices about how we behave and react NOW, not change the past or try to leverage the actions of others.


“It is also crucial to teach clients that life is not fair, that in the real world some people give more to a relationship than others.”


I have two adopted children, one of which experienced a great deal of unfairness in his life before he came to live with my wife and I, and probably experienced some unfairness afterwards as we tried to do our best balancing the needs of two adopted children and one naturally born child.  Getting hold of the nature of life’s unfairness helps one stop pining over that fact and simply accept the truth of it.  We have to live the life God has given us, not wish we were someone else or in someone else’s position.


“It has been my experience that helping people to look at a physiological problem as a choice is a liberating awareness.  The mystery, the fear that something beyond their control has suddenly come over them, is removed.” Pg. 159.


I certainly wonder how many psychiatrists would agree or appreciate that statement.  I have the feeling that many of them like having people dependent on them for help.  It may be that I am overly negative towards the profession due to the huge debt one of my family members ran up while trying to get help for a child in the family who showed some signs of psychosis.  At the same time, the doctor seems to go pretty far in the direction of suggesting that nearly all mental illness is caused by a choice to “depress”, “psychos”, “nervose” and the other verbs he applies to the theory.  By the end of the book I had the distinct feeling that the doctor had fallen a bit too in love with his theory.  I would not be comfortable myself doing as he suggests with a three year old.  That is, let them choose what they eat, what time they go to bed, and so forth.  He attributes a pretty high level of reasoning skills to very small children.  Additionally, I wonder about his broad application of the theory to schools.  I have no doubt that he is correct about many things; that school boards, administrators, and teachers have gotten stuck in “external control psychology” grooves that don’t work with many students.  Yet he gives no credit at all to the thought that some students not only do well, but excel in present day schools.  Nevertheless, his achievements in the Cincinnati are worth considering.  My wife has often observed in her volunteer work at the elementary school that the children are greatly affected by their parent’s outlook on education.  It seems true that if the parents are in the quality world of their children (and they almost always are, according to Dr. Glasser, no matter how bad they are) and those parents have education and teaching in their own quality worlds, then the children are likely to do the same.


However, I am wondering about how far the choice theory idea can be carried as to a universal application.  I think it interesting that many young people, my own son included, have thrived in the ROTC programs.  These programs are based on the military application of external control, an external control that surpasses all others as far as I can tell.  According to Dr. Glasser’s theory, these programs should be a complete failure.  Yet I have seen how they not only work very well (with some, not all children) in their own area, they succeed at motivating the students to do better in their other areas of work.  I suppose that Dr. Glasser would say that is because the instructor’s succeed in putting themselves into the quality worlds of the students by showing caring, and perhaps that is true.  He does not address the issue in the book, but I wish he had done so.


I appreciated Dr. Glasser’s take on the superiority of leadership to bossing in the workplace.  As an employer and a supervisor myself, I am keenly aware of how much better my employees respond to leadership as opposed to bossing.  It probably helps that I have never been very comfortable with bossing anyway.  I am a self-motivated individual and am happy to surround myself with similarly motivated individuals.   This book was a vindication of what I have felt instinctively to be true; that employees must be motivated by example and by a leadership attitude that rewards initiative and appreciates the employees for what they bring to the company and what they are in themselves, apart from any gain the company might realize from them.  I have tried to weave these ideas into the fabric of my company and I think I have been fairly successful in so doing.  My low employee turnover rate I think speaks highly to this fact.


All in all, I believe this was a useful book, far more so than the Millman book.  I would be interested in reading Dr. Glasser’s other works.  Though I don’t agree with everything he says, and I think he is somewhat narrowly focused on what he perceives to be the answer to most of the world’s problems, I think he is on to something that we would all do well to pay more attention to.