“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
— Anton Chekhov
Do your days feel non-stop? Is your to-do list bottomless? The drudgery of everyday life is exhausting. Too often our days seem to be both bursting-at-the-seams yet unfulfilling. They have become a thankless game of Wac-A-Mole, but with no chance of winning even a sorry-looking stuffed toy.
“Everything I do these days feels like a ‘have to,’ not a ‘want to,’” one patient told me. Her observation made me think about how often the words “I have to…” roll off my tongue.
I have to pick up my kids.
I have to walk the dogs.
I have to work out.
I have to meet my friend for coffee.
I have to return my sister’s call.
I have to work on a talk I am giving next week.
I have to go to San Francisco for the APA conference.
The list goes on and on…
There is a begrudging tone to these pronouncements. “Have to” statements imply burden and obligation. They conjure dread and tedium. An “ugh” or exasperated sigh may as well accompany them. Using this turn of phrase connotes a passive existence and serves as a reminder that one’s days are dictated rather than self-directed.
There is evidence showing that how we talk to ourselves and others shapes how we experience the world. For instance, using your name and third-person pronouns (e.g., he, she, it, itself, they, them) to refer to yourself during a stressful moment can enhance your ability to control your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In other words, asking “Why is Samantha upset?” instead of “Why am I upset?” has been shown to be an effective emotional regulation tool.
The more I learned about how language matters, the more I paid attention to what came out of my mouth. I realized that every time I said “I have to…” I glossed over the positive emotions that might accompany the task and extinguished the potential for gratitude. Drudgery swallowed the possibility of delight.
A simple remedy to disrupt this habit is to replace the phrase “have to” with “get to.” Saying “I get to meet my friend for coffee” and “I get to give a speech” reminds me of how unbelievably lucky I am. Instead of dwelling on the obligation, I became more aware of the appreciation I have for the opportunity to engage in these activities. When I have to do things, I feel compelled and beholden. When I get to do things, I am reminded of the privilege and the pleasure of the task and how the task connects to what I care about the most.
While there are plenty of things in our daily lives that are hard to get excited about, there is also a lot that deserves our delight.
Bottom Line: Watch your words. Don’t confuse the “have tos” with the “get tos.”
On that note, I get to write a new newsletter 😀
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman