One of the things that has always been the hardest for me to deal with is the feeling that I “have to” do something. If I feel that I have no choice, that situations or circumstances or societal pressures mean that I have no options, I can end up in a pit of despair where it’s very hard for me to see a way out. In that state, it’s hard for me to do anything productive or good for myself.
Just as one example, there was a period in grad school when I was really struggling with my relationship with my advisor. I didn’t feel like he had the time to spend advising me, I didn’t feel like the advice I was getting from him was helpful, I didn’t feel like he cared about or respected me, and I didn’t feel like I had any other options. I felt stuck, and despaired about ever being able to finish the program I was in.
Finally, I talked to a couple of other students about the issues I was having with my advisor. Both of them told me “Yeah, those sound like serious issues. You could certainly switch advisors if you wanted to.” Curiously, that was all I needed; knowing that I had choices and options allowed me to feel unstuck, and I ended up continuing and graduating with the same advisor.
That’s just one example; there have been plenty of other times when I felt trapped in some way by what I “had to” do. Fortunately, I’ve come to believe my life is full of choices, and I always have options. I believe that there are only two things that I have to do:
- I have to die (at some point, hopefully far in the future);
- I have to keep breathing until I die.
Everything else (and I do mean everything) is a choice.
I hear you saying, “But Brendon, what about paying taxes? What about eating? What about brushing your teeth?” And my response is, “No, I don’t have to do any of those things. Those are choices.” But:
The critical thing to remember here is that cause and effect is a real thing, and so choices have consequences. If I were to choose not to pay taxes, there would be significant legal consequences for me and my family. But, tax evasion is a real thing, and people do make that choice. If I were to choose not to eat, I would lose weight, lose strength, get malnourished, and eventually sicken and die. But, hunger strikes are a real thing, and sometimes people make that choice as well.
Just to be crystal clear, I have no intention of choosing not to pay taxes, or choosing to go on a hunger strike, or to stop brushing my teeth. But, that’s not because I think I “have to” do anything. It’s because I’m making the choice that is most likely to have the consequences that I want. (I also really find it helpful to focus in this way: I’m not choosing to avoid consequences, I’m choosing to select consequences. That helps me keep the focus on the positive, not the negative.)
I find this perspective to be much more empowering. I’m not a victim of circumstance, I’m making the choices that have the results I want. I’m not a victim of society’s expectations, I’m making the choices that are the most aligned with my values and beliefs.
I have also made a point of changing my self-talk and the way I talk to others to almost completely avoid the phrase “I have to” as well. I don’t “have to” go to the gym this morning; I like the way I feel when I go to the gym regularly, and so I choose to go to the gym this morning. I don’t “have to” write this morning; it’s important to me to publish regularly, and so I’ve chosen to write in the mornings to accomplish that goal.
When I first started this mindset shift, I was shocked by just how often I would say to myself or others “I have to …” Even now, with a couple decades of practice, it still slips out sometimes, but it’s much easier to catch. And, by focusing on the perspective of choices, consequences, and values, I get to feel much better about myself and my life. I feel empowered to decide the course of my life, rather than being a victim of circumstances.
If, like I used to, you find yourself overwhelmed by the feeling of having to do something, try looking at it from the perspective of choosing consequences instead. You may find the perspective empowering, just like I did.