Choice Theory: A Journaling Exercise for the Post Vacation Blues

I first learned about Choice Theory while working at a summer camp in Ward, Colorado. As part of a professional development training, we learned about the five tenets of Choice Theory: Survival, Love, Power, Freedom, and Fun. This week, I’m sharing a journaling exercise that uses four of tenets of Choice Theory to help manage the post vacation blues.

Image shows a journal, coffee, colored pens, and small flower.
Set aside some time to do the exercises in this post with a cup of coffee and your favorite journal.

What is Choice Theory?

Choice Theory was developed by William Glasser (1925 – 2013), an American Psychiatrist who published a book titled, Reality Theory in 1965. To be sure, Glasser also held some views that are deeply problematic, and I only reference his work because I’ve found it to be helpful in my own life.  

Briefly, Choice Theory posits that, regardless of the choices we make, we’re always trying to fulfill one of these five basic needs. These needs are neutral–neither good nor bad–and are universally applicable. Because, as people, we can only really control ourselves, Choice Theory was designed to help people to take responsibility for their own lives and the choices they make. We all have an inherently limited ability to control or influence other people, so Choice Theory encourages us to stop trying to direct other people’s choices and focus on our own. 

Here are the five needs and their definitions:
Survival – the need to feel safe and secure

Love and Belonging – the need for intimacy, connection to others, and to feel like you belong

Power – the need to feel competent, successful, and significant 

Freedom – the need to make your own choices and direct the course of your life

Fun – the need to enjoy oneself 

Image shows author with a laptop and cellphone sitting on the ground. A donkey is standing in the foreground.
Jake took this photo of me on a work call while sitting outside with the donkeys.

How I’ve Used Choice Theory

At the camp where I worked, Choice Theory mainly served as a way to intervene with challenging behaviors we encountered with campers. However, in the years since, it fundamentally changed the way that I see myself and the people around me. There’s something radically simple about it, and I love how easy it is to implement. 

As an Educator

With campers, you could pretty easily identify where most of their behaviors were coming from using the framework. A kid is using a stick to whack a tree? Probably seeking power and freedom, maybe a little fun. The fix? You could ask them to lead the next activity, or redirect the whacking to some big boulders instead of the living trees. A kid says something mean about you, the counselor? Most likely, they’re seeking love and belonging, and they want to know that you care about them. 

By addressing the unmet needs, as opposed to the behavior, it’s easier to empathize with kids. Further, it pulls you out of the binary of rewarding “good” and punishing “bad” behavior, and into the realm of thinking through a child’s needs at any moment. It doesn’t preclude the use of consequences, nor does it offer an obvious solution to every problem, but it was a useful framework for me as a camp counselor. 

Image shows author attempting a handstand in Arches National Park
I might not be good at doing handstands, but I had fun trying! This photo was taken in Arches National Park.

To Understand Myself

In the past several years, I’ve found myself using Choice Theory to evaluate my own behavior and that of the people around me. I love that it centers on your needs, and the needs of the people around you, as opposed to ways to influence others. I remember once I was feeling very unhappy at work, so I did a quick Choice Theory audit of myself; I realized that I was lacking in freedom, fun, and power. 

My job at the time was working in a corporate setting in Denver, and I was miserable. I found my daily tasks to be boring (lacking fun) and monotonous (lacking freedom). I also felt that I didn’t have the agency necessary to make changes at the organization (lacking power), so I constantly felt like my opinion wasn’t valued. While there wasn’t a ton that I could do about that situation at work, I was able to set out and give myself freedom, fun, and power in other parts of my life. 

I rededicated myself to my yoga practice (power and fun), I planned a trip for later that year (freedom and fun), and I spent the weekends exploring the mountains (freedom and fun). I also took on a leadership role on the Board of a non-profit organization, Pagus:Africa. 

Photo shows author in a field of flowers in San Francisco, California.
This photo was taken towards the end of a day when I walked the width of San Francisco.

This exercise will focus on the final four of the tenets of Choice Theory: love, power, freedom, and fun. 

What are Post Vacation Blues?

Post vacation blues are feelings of depression, sadness, or anxiety that travelers experience towards the end of, or just after, returning from a long trip or vacation. The post vacation (or post holiday) blues can dampen the experience of traveling and leave the traveler dreading their return home and to their normal life.

The post vacation blues can happen to anyone, but I’ve noticed that I suffer more when I feel there is something malaligned in my life. Whenever I travel to escape something, I almost inevitably return to the same circumstances unless I make a change. If you’ve been meaning to travel as a way to change your life or to punctuate a life change, you might enjoy my transitional travel guide. Whatever the reason for your post vacation blues, be kind to yourself. Own the places that you can improve, and start to make changes that will bring you more into alignment with the freer, happier version of yourself you discovered on your trip. 

Related Post: How to Overcome the Post Vacation Blues

Image shows author in a treelined park with other pedestrians around.
I took this selfie in Florence, Italy while I was very much experiencing premature post vacation blues.

How To Do A Love, Power, Freedom, Fun Audit

I am working on a longer piece about overcoming the post vacation blues, but as I was writing it I developed a journaling exercise that I wanted to share this week. The exercise is designed to help you understand the ways that your trip may have filled needs that you have in your daily life. By doing a Love, Power, Freedom, Fun Audit, you can better understand ways that you might need to change your daily life so that it can be something you don’t need to escape from. 

You can do this audit at any time, but it will be most powerful and effective while you’re actively experiencing post vacation blues. 

This exercise takes 30-45 minutes to complete. You’ll need a timer or watch, a journal, and a writing utensil to complete the audit. 

Note on timing: If the timer goes off and you still have more to say, just journal until you reach a natural stopping point, then move on to the next topic. The goal is to spend time thinking about and reflecting upon these areas of your trip and your daily life, not to simply answer the questions. If the questions jog an unrelated thought, write about that instead or in addition to the questions. 

Photo shows author on a backpacking trip in Colorado.
A photo from a backpacking trip in Colorado, a time when I felt free and empowered.

First: Get Curious

Get curious about your experience with the post vacation blues. Spend the next 30 minutes reflecting on how these needs were filled during your trip, and how that might compare to your life at home.

If you run out of things to say about a particular topic, write about how it made you feel to have nothing more to add. Write about what you wish were true about each area, or ways that you might want to change this experience for next time. Don’t feel like you have to answer every one of the prompts, just let them guide how you journal about each topic. 

Photo shows author smiling from inside a hammock in the woods of Colorado.
Camping fun in the mountains of Colorado.

Journal Prompt #1: Love and Belonging  

Set a timer and write for 3 minutes about all of the ways that you experienced love while traveling.

-What did you love?

-Who did you love?

-Who loved you?

-When did you feel most loved?

-When did you feel the most love for the people around you and the place you were visiting?

-Try to get specific about all of the love you experienced while traveling and what it meant to you.

-If you didn’t feel love or loved while on your trip, journal about that.

-Was there a specific instance where you didn’t feel loved? If so, write about what happened and how that made you feel. 

Then, write for 3 minutes about all of the ways you feel love at home.

-Do you feel love for a partner, friends, family, pets?

-Do you feel love for your home, your city, your country?

-When you’re home, when do you feel most loved?

-When you’re home, when do you feel the greatest absence of love?

-Try to think about love in the biggest, grandest, most profound way you can manage. 

Group photo of author with friends on a hiking trip in Colorado.
A moment of connection and belonging on a hiking trip in Colorado.

Journal Prompt #2: Power 

Write for 3 minutes about all of the ways that you felt power, or empowered, on your trip.

-Where did you find your personal authority?

-How did you know that you felt empowered?

-What did it feel like to be empowered?

-Are there instances where you did power, as explained by Rebecca Traister? Doing power can be as simple as making a decision and sticking up for yourself.

-Were there ways that you advocated for yourself on this trip? Did you advocate for others?

Next, spend 3 minutes writing about all of the ways that you have power or do power at home.

-When do you feel most powerful? When do you feel most empowered? Is it in a yoga class? Do you have authority at work?

-What opportunities do you have at home to exercise your personal power, and how often do you take them?

-Do you feel like you have enough power over your life, or would you like more? If you were to try to increase the amount of power you have, what would that look like? What would it feel like?

-Where in your life do you feel a distinct lack of power? What does it feel like to experience disempowerment? 

Related Post: How to Practice Self-Care While Traveling

Journal Prompt #3: Freedom 

Write for 3 minutes about all of the times you experienced freedom on your trip.

-What did it feel like to feel free? How did you know that you felt free?

-What body sensations did you experience during times of experiencing freedom?

-Are there certain activities or experiences that made you feel more freedom?

-When did you feel the least free on your trip, and what was happening at that time?

Next, write for 3 minutes about all of the ways that you experience freedom in your daily life.

-Are there activities that make you feel free, like driving on an open highway, hiking, or having a full day without plans? What are those activities?

-Are there ways that you would like to feel more free in your daily life?

-How many days of the week would you say that you feel freedom in your life now, and do you wish that number were different?

-One year from now, how would you like your relationship to freedom to change? 

Image shows author in snowshoes in front of a geyser in Yellowstone in the snow.
This photo was taken on a February 2020 trip to Yellowstone, my last trip before the pandemic.

Journal Prompt #4: Fun

Write for 3 minutes about all of the times you experienced fun on your trip.

-What did it feel like when you were having fun? How did you know that it was fun?

-What body sensations did you experience while you were having fun?

-Are there certain activities or experiences that were particularly fun?

-Were the experiences more fun in the moment, or in retrospect?

-How is having fun now different than when you were younger?

Next, spend 3 minutes completing a mental fun audit for your life at home.

-What do you do that is genuinely fun, and how often do you do it?

-When you’re having fun, who is around you?

-Where do you have the most fun?

-Do you feel good about the amount of fun in your life, or would you like to have more?

-Are the activities that you find fun good for your health and wellbeing?

-Are there activities that you’d like to try that you think could bring you more fun?

-Think of some of the most fun activities in your life now, are they fun in the moment, or are they more fun in retrospect? Are there ways that you can have more fun in the moment?

Image shows author on a tubing hill
A photo from a day of snow tubing in Colorado. I chose this activity after deciding that I needed to have more fun in my life.

Journal Prompt #5: Assessment

Finally, spend a few minutes comparing how your answers about your experiences of love, power, freedom, and fun while on your trip compare to your answers about your life at home.

-Are there places where you feel a deficit, where your trip filled these needs more than your life at home?

-Would you like to experience more love, power, freedom, and/or fun at home in your life? If you were to expand those feelings, what would it look like?

-How would you like your life to be different one year from now?

-What steps can you take today so that you get closer to the life that you’d like to be living? Get really specific, and try to think of a few changes that you can make to address the gaps or areas with room for improvement in your life. 

Image shows author journaling in Pennsylvania.
I stopped for a journaling break while on a walk outside of Philadelphia when I was living in Pennsylvania.

Final Thoughts on Choice Theory: A Journaling Exercise for the Post Vacation Blues

World Travelers may experience post vacation blues from time to time. Traveling can be very different from everyday life, so I’ve found that it’s normal to feel some disappointment at the conclusion of a trip. Have compassion for yourself. Be gentle and kind. Look for ways to have fun and experience freedom when you get home. Remember, the way out is through

Traveling presents all of these unique, survival-related challenges that your brain loves to work out. It’s like each day is a puzzle, and the goal is to learn the most, see the most, and enjoy the most. Being home is different, it’s much more about doing things for other people. Fulfilling obligations. Setting goals and achieving them. There’s always something you’re doing wrong, something that someone else is doing better, and a general sense of “Wow, this is hard.”

Use the insight you gain from this audit to start to make little changes in your life. Maybe you need to add some spontaneity, make new friends, recommit to learning, or just generally get unstuck

Have you experienced post vacation blues? Has journaling helped you to see patterns that were previously hidden? Do you have other advice for people struggling with the post vacation blues? Let me know in the comments!