When I was in graduate school, I took a course on Dr. William Glasser’s controversial choice theory. I had never heard of the man before I signed up for the class and had no idea that he was a psychiatrist with some controversial ideas.

Until recently, when I read that Dr. Glasser had passed away, I had completely forgotten about choice theory and my experience in the class. After I read Dr. Glasser’s obituary, I started to think about what had been covered in my course and how I had initially reacted to it.

The first thing I learned about Dr. Glasser was that he did not believe in mental illness. He believed that everything was a choice — that we choose everything we do (even to be unhappy or mentally ill).

This included everything from feeling mildly depressed to being schizophrenic. He also was against pharmacologic therapy for mental illness. He thought that if mental illness was not real, it did not make sense to take medication for it. I was immediately turned off by this theory. I do believe in mental illness and that some people absolutely require medication.

Because I disagreed with this major theory, I spent most of my course feeling like Dr. Glasser was simply wrong. ((I did not select to take the class on Dr. Glasser’s theories because I was particularly interested in the topic; I took it because it counted toward an elective credit and was offered in a time slot that worked for me. )) As I read his obituary yesterday, I started to wonder if that approach had been a mistake. Could every idea the man had be faulty simply because I disagreed with a piece of it? I was curious, so keeping an open mind, I pulled out my books from the class and started reading.

An introductory chapter on choice theory introduced its major ideas:

1. Other people can’t make us happy or miserable. They can only give us information that we process, then decide what to do.

I am fine with this. It sounds like a reiteration of not being able to change the behavior of others, you can only change your own reaction to it. All right, score one for Dr. Glasser.

2. We are more in control of our lives than we realize we are. You should stop seeing yourself as a victim or that your brain has insurmountable imbalances.

I am fine with this one too. Being a victim can take on all forms, but sometimes people have more strength and power than they realize. Dr. Glasser also made the point that medications may make you feel better, but they will not actually solve the problems of your life. Okay, point taken.

3. All unhappy people are unhappy because they can’t get along with the people they want to get along with.

I like this one! When I think of reasons I am sometimes unhappy, my thoughts often lead back to some of my relationships not being what I would like them to be.

4. External control causes misery.

For this one, Dr. Glasser talks a lot about the concepts of coercion and punishment. He talks about it on a greater scale, like the government, but also on a smaller scale, like parents trying to get kids to do chores. I’m not sure about this one. I think some external control is necessary to keep the world running. There probably should be more positive reinforcement than punishment to keep societies properly running, but I don’t think every facet of external control should be removed.

After revisiting choice theory, I think I was wrong to completely discount Dr. Glasser because of his stance on mental illness and medication. Dr. Glasser seems to think that all people do is behave and make choices. I can get on board with this basic statement. I have no doubt that there is much more to what Dr. Glasser had to say than the bits I’ve read, and I’m only skimming the surface of his ideas, but perhaps I was too quick to judge his ideas. Choice theory is certainly worth learning about and I should have made more of my course when I was in it.


Glasser, William. Choice Theory. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.