Understanding Personal Efficacy and Its Impact on Choice

Last week’s post, subtitled the dilemma of choice, got me thinking anew about “choice” — from the act of it to the impact of it. I’m not sure where we’ll wind up at the end, but let’s get started.

We’ll begin with the definitions.

Curiously, “choice” as an adjective has opposite definitions.

  • a positive connotation (of food) of superior quality.  “He picked some choice early plums.”  Synonyms include  first-class, first-rateprime and
  • a negative connotation (of words) as rude and abusive. “He had a few choice words at his command.” Synonyms include insulting, offensive, and unprintable

What other adjective does that, I wonder? 

With thanks to unprovokeddigression.com for this image.

That was a bit of a digression, but you know I love those.  So, let’s get back to CHOICE as a noun, the way I used it last week. It’s defined as

an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities: “The choice between good and evil.” Synonyms include option, alternative, possibility, possible course of action

In the past week we’ve all made many choices

Mine include which books to keep, which dinner to prepare, whether to exercise or put it off once again, and which house to rent for our family gathering in Nova Scotia that my mom has requested for her upcoming 90th birthday celebration. My process in each of these differed only in how many others were involved in the decision. Of course.

These decisions were, in their way, quick, somewhat fun, and the consequences fairly inconsequential (paradoxically). Let’s just say they were easy decisions to make among somewhat obvious options. No scratching of heads needed, just a little time.

Thanks to decision-making-solutions.com

But what of those choices that are of more consequence?

  • Where to go to college, what to major in, whom to marry
  • When to have a baby, or even if, where (and when) to move, or to invest, or to  have that troublesome symptom examined
  • When to retire, where to live as you age, to whom to leave your money, whether to include a DNR in your advance directive

Each one of these leads to a new path, changing your life forever. Some see new adventures ahead while others are paralyzed by fear (of the unknown?).  I see the distinction as less a sign of dysfunction than as a product of culture, what we’ve picked up in our life about “normal.”


Choice means change. Choice means the path you are on forks up ahead (or, heavens! right now) and you can’t be on both at the same time.  You could go down one for a bit, then turn around and try the other path — if you lived in my metaphor. Unfortunately, most choices don’t offer that option.

You can’t choose to have both the pot roast and the vegetarian dinner. I can’t lose weight and eat that delicious looking whatever. We can’t move to the south of France and stay close to our friends. Given a fixed time frame, of course. Choose one; just do it.

What of those who believe they “have no choice”?

Have you noticed how heroes tend to say some variation of “I had to do it. I didn’t think about it, I just did it.” I have many of these “I had no choice” stories.  One of my favorites involves the American Quaker colony that now lives in Costa Rica. How they got there and why (“we had no choice” they tell me) is one of my current WsIP, which I’ll be writing more about as the months go by. I hope.

Then there are those who do have a choice, but may not realize it.

How many remember this idea from Eldridge Cleaver in the 1960s?

Thanks to BrainyQuotes.com for the image.

I’ve posted similar sentiments from  Mahatma Gandhi and  Martin Luther King Jr.  Here’s another from Albert Einstein:


“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” Albert Einstein

And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing during World War II:


Laurie Buchanan, fellow author and blogger (Tuesdays with Laurie) and regular commenter here, speaks to this idea in her tagline:

“Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.” 

These all speak, I think, to the inherent belief that each of us holds the power to make a difference, the ability to make the right choice, to do good, to grow. We just need to believe it and trust that it’s true.

I like the phrase that social scientists use when they study this stuff:  personal efficacy. And they view it as an aspect of a character or identity (depending on the field).

But not everyone knows they have this power, either individually or collectively.


thanks to LatterDayMommy.com for the image.

How or when do we realize that we have a choice? How do we come to know that what we do, matters? When do we stop going along and take our stand?


Isn’t that the core question of our time? Perhaps even the gateway to adulthood? I like to think so.

But moving on, once we feel that sense of personal or collective power, we recognize that in among the choices we have is also the one to do nothing, whether we choose to let sleeping dogs lie and “not rock the boat,” or we choose to “accept the unacceptable” and “let it go,” we know it’s a conscious choice we are making.

Beyond asking yourself, “Is this a choice I can or cannot live without?” I recommend always asking, “What is my motive in making this choice?”  Here are three I’ve experienced along the way:

  • To help, to fix, to rescue and in so doing, enhance my sense of self worth (regardless of its impact on the other)
  • To help someone who needs a hand and in so doing, enabling the other to succeed (without expecting anything in return)
  • To grow and in so doing, to have a new adventure (and vice versa)

The Serenity Prayer came to mind often while I lived in Kazakhstan.


With thanks to notaminutetowaste.com

One of my early struggles that first year came as I saw the different ways in which life could be improved “if only . . .”  At first I assumed they lacked the “courage to change” and I was frustrated.

It was only when I recognized that it was me, lacking the “serenity to accept,” that I could relax and enjoy my time there.  Yes, that “wisdom to know the difference” has always been the tricky one for me.

Kazakhstan is a country with a demagogue strong executive who rules with an iron hand (or did before he stepped down as I was writing this post; doesn’t matter, no one believes much will change.). The people I met there had far fewer options than those of us privileged to have been born in the West. Once I accepted that fact, I was able to give them the admiration they deserved for making their life still meaningful and even fun.

I think of the many right here in the USA who would love to move to a better neighborhood with better schools and safer streets, but lack the funds to make it happen; or those who want to change jobs  but lack the understanding of where to start.

And I think of the millions throughout history stuck in refugee camps, internment camps, or concentration camps. They cannot change their situation, but they can,  as Victor Frankl wrote so eloquently in Man’s Search for Meaning, change their attitude toward their circumstances. “When we are no longer able to change a situation,” he wrote, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Thanks again to BrainyQuote.com for the image.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all had that sense of personal efficacy to change the circumstances of our lives? Or to recognize when a change in attitude is called for?

Social change through personal empowerment, was once my tagline. And, as I write this type of post, I see it is still something I believe in, strongly.

Whether I actually bring that about, I don’t really know. So, I’ll just continue to write these posts, expand my blog’s reach through reader shares, and hope that the readers I attract will be ones for whom the questions I continue to ask myself will be equally challenging to them.

If not, there’s always this to keep in mind:

How about you? Where are you on the personal efficacy continuum?  

14 Responses

  1. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I believe everyone has a choice in all situations. It’s just that you may not like your choices so you say you don’t have one. Soap operas play up that trope to the nth degree.

    I often say that there are people with problems and there are people with solutions. It’s not that the people with solutions don’t have problems, it’s just that they don’t let them define who they are. I am a solutions girl, but you probably already know that. And as such, people who like to cling to their problems do not like me.

    But I’m ok with that.
    Ally Bean recently posted…The Sound Of NOT Silence Thanks To A Water Drip In The Chimney, AgainMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      “…there are people with problems and there are people with solutions.” I know what you mean, Ally. I’ve met those people too who can’t seem to kick out of “woe is me” mode. I think those are the ones I was thinking of toward the end of this post. They don’t really think in terms of being able to make a difference in their life. They have no sense of personal efficacy (it’s not often I get to use the term; pardon me while I make up for lost time here). How to get them to see? How to challenge them to try a different approach? How to help? [When the student is ready, (then) the teacher arrives.] Does it seem their ranks are growing? It is tied to their identity, though; of that I’m convinced.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Personal Efficacy and Its Impact on ChoiceMy Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I’ve known the serenity prayer a long, long time. My mother had a glass motto with its imprint. And when I got to know Laurie B. her unique saying resonated with me – totally!

    You mentioned that you’ll be tripping to Nova Scotia for your mother’s 90th birthday celebration. You may know that Shirley S. and her family will be going there too for their fiftieth, a fact she’s mentioned on her blog.

    Great quotes, Janet! And always food for thought.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…You’re Only Young Once and Other MythsMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian. Yes, Laurie is in cahoots with an impressive lot. When I first saw her tag, years ago now, I only related it to the “courage to change.” It took me awhile to appreciate the many facets contained therein. And, yes I do know about Shirley’s upcoming anniversary trip. We’ll be a few months apart, unfortunately.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Personal Efficacy and Its Impact on ChoiceMy Profile

  3. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Good stuff, Janet, and for me, timely. As to where I stand on the self-efficacy continuum, suffice it to say for now, it’s a mixed bag, and a work in progress 🙂

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I love what you wrote:

    “Each of us holds the power to make a difference, the ability to make the right choice, to do good, to grow.”

    Amen siSTAR!
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Nailed It!My Profile

  5. Joan
    | Reply

    Lots to think about here! With choice comes control, or so I thought when I was much younger. Then I learned that I couldn’t control much except what to eat or which way to walk down the street, or which sweater to wear.

    The serenity prayer has been my go to for years. Knowing the difference is so important, and results in my choosing which wars to get involved in. I go about trying to change minds rather than go to battle. I’m finding it easier to accept what I can’t change, and am happier for it.

  6. Tracy Rittmueller
    | Reply

    Me? I’m in reflecting/writing phase of the “bad decisions make good stories,” while feeling newly empowered, and slowly learning to live out my personal efficacy. Wow — that’s a mouthful.

    I’m also aware that my personal efficacy is not actually “mine,” or rather, not entirely. I’m more effective when I’m seeking and accepting necessary, right help.

    This is complicated — I could write a whole blog post on it. But I won’t go down that rabbit hole; I have too many other incomplete tasks on my ToDo list at the moment.

    This is a thoughtful post, Janet. I especially value the questions about motivation. I’m copying those and posting them in my work & think spaces. Thank you!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Tracy, your comment that you’re more effective when “seeking and accepting the right kind of help” moved me. We are not alone and how good it is to be reminded.

      Paul Theroux, the travel writer and former PCV, says “being wrong is the essence of the travelers tale.” We all have tales to tell; how boring they would be if they were about being right all the time. He also says “… it was my good fortune to be wrong.” And he wrote some magnificent books.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Personal Efficacy and Its Impact on ChoiceMy Profile

  7. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    An apology to my subscribers:

    For the second week in a row, I’ve somehow screwed up (IDIOM ALERT) the link between the Mailchimp email notification you get at 3 am on Wednesdays and the actual post. My thanks, though, to friend and former neighbor Nancy D who called my attention to it at about 3:15 this morning. ( I shall henceforth try to remember not to check my email on my phone when I get up to pee in the middle of the night.) I know we all get too much in our inbox and I regret adding to yours unnecessarily. I am sorry, and I truly hope it doesn’t happen again. But really, I can’t make any promises. ;(
    Janet Givens recently posted…Understanding Personal Efficacy and Its Impact on ChoiceMy Profile

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