Do you really HAVE to do anything?

by Pamela Slim

If you have ever watched the Discovery Channel, you have seen the fury of a mother bear defending her cubs from the video lens of an over-eager nature lover. With fangs bared and claws ready to attack, she focuses all of her power and girth at taking down the potential threat.

Such intensity almost matches a creative father who adamantly defends his miserable career as a network administrator since he “has to” pay for his children’s education.

Or a young college student who “has to” answer her overbearing mother’s calls, even in the middle of a date.

Or a mother who “has to” feed her children only organic carrots fertilized with vegetable compost blessed by Tibetan monks.

Or an executive who “has to” work weekends and vacations in order to stay competitive.

The fact is, we don’t have to do anything. We choose to do things with specific consequences. Different choices = different consequences.

This slight distinction has huge implications for your sense of personal power.

But releasing these ingrained “have tos,” also called your “personal religion,” is not easy.

To get you started, here are three short exercises:

1. Body Compass:

  • Close your eyes and deeply relax. Vividly recall an exceptionally painful or unhappy experience. Notice how this memory is making you feel, not emotionally, but physically. What bodily sensations or symptoms are connected to the negative event?
  • Name this sensation with a word or phrase.
  • Assign a score to this negative feeling from 1-10, with the worst possible score being a 10.
  • Repeat this process, thinking this time about the very best time of your life. Notice your body symptoms, name the sensation, and assign a score.

Once you have this valuable information about your “body compass,” you can use it to understand how you are really feeling about a situation. When you think a thought or ponder a decision, what do you feel in your body? Is it your “best” or “worst” feeling? What is the score?

2. Think of some things you have had to do lately that made you uncomfortable, sad or angry such as:

  1. I had to lend my brother $250 (again) so he could pay his rent
  2. I had to attend a boring all-day meeting
  3. I had to enter my credit card items in Quickbooks to prepare for my tax filing
  4. I had to attend a dinner party of a neighbor who I don’t particularly like
  5. I had to do my laundry
  6. I had to fire an employee
  7. I had to take my son’s car away after he had an accident
  8. I had to call a client and tell him we were behind on his project
  9. I had to decline a weekend away with the girls since I didn’t have enough money
  10. I had to walk the dog in -20 degree weather

Using your body compass, assign a number from -10 to +10 to each item, based on the way your body reacts to each item.

3. Take the item with the worst score and examine the belief.

Belief: I have to lend money to my brother.

Why?: Because if I don’t, he will get angry and call me selfish.

What will happen if he gets angry? He may stop talking to me.

How will you feel if your brother stops talking to you? Crappy. Unloved.

What do you really want? I want my brother to love me.

Since you can’t control anyone else’s thoughts and emotions, what do you want? I want to feel loved.

What is another way you can feel loved? I can love myself. I can surround myself with people whose love is not contingent on loaning money. And I can love others.

Suddenly, your steadfast belief that you have to lend your brother money loses its power. You learn that you can choose not to lend the money and still feel good. And if you choose to lend the money, you will do so freely and without the expectation of anything in return.

You can apply this framework to any one of the above scenarios and see how it changes your sense of obligation.

Original thought: I have to stay in this job to pay for my kids’ college
Underlying desire: I want my kids to get a good education.
Question: How can I help my kids get a good education?

Original thought: I have to answer all my mother’s calls, no matter my personal situation
Underlying desire
: I want my mother to know I love and respect her.
Question: How can I demonstrate love and respect to my mother while still maintaining my independence and privacy?

Original thought: I have to feed my kids 100% organic food at all times
Underlying desire: I want my kids to be healthy.
Question: How can I help my kids be healthy?

Original thought: I have to do my laundry
Underlying desire: I want to have clean clothes
Question: How can I get my clothes clean?

All this boils down to realizing that you have unlimited choices about how to live your life. When you own your choices, you feel more powerful and are more able to act in your best interest.

Let’s try something: If you catch yourself saying “I have to … ” this week, stop, pinch yourself and say “I choose to …” If you don’t like your choice, make another one! You may be surprised at how free you feel.

Can you share the results of your experiment here in the comments?

10 replies
  1. Sheila
    Sheila says:

    Unlimited choices – what a concept. So it’s better to say “I want my family to wear clean clothes” instead of “I HAVE TO do laundry”. “I want my house to be clean” instead of “I HAVE TO clean my house”. “I want to use my car to get around” instead of “I HAVE TO spend $60 to fill my gas tank”. “I want to be able to button these pants” instead of “I HAVE TO drop weight”. It IS a little easier to swallow! It’s also hell to admit that I’m merely human and not infalible. I can do this.

  2. Carol L. Skolnick, Clear Life Solutions
    Carol L. Skolnick, Clear Life Solutions says:

    Yes! The questioned mind is the infinite mind. I “have to” do my tax prep, is that true? No, it’s not…I always have the choice of not doing it if I’m willing to pay the price afterwards. I want to do my tax prep is truer, and in fact I got an extension this year so that I can fulfill this desire sanely. What I want, it turns out, is not merely taxes that are filed and done with for the year, but a sane life, peace of mind, space to do other things that also enhance my life. What I want is balance, and a mind that continually goes to “I have to” is decidedly unbalanced, not creative, in short, imprisoned and insane.

  3. HR Wench
    HR Wench says:

    The feed on this site doesn’t seem to be working. I added it to my Google Reader but it is not updating and only shows one post (the “welcome to WordPress” post). I even tried unsubscribing and resubscribing. Maybe it is just me?

    Hey HRW! Nice to see you here. I am checking into it and hopefully we can fix soon. Thanks!


  4. Deb
    Deb says:

    I am amazed how different my attitude is when I see things as a choice rather than a have to or a should. I was raised in a family with very few boundaries. I thought I always had to answer the phone, the door, etc. and especially since my mom died and my dad has called sometimes 20 times a day. I have allowed him to treat me with disrespect and abuse me. Well, not gonna take it anymore! I DON”T have to answer the phone and when I CHOOSE to do so, I can say NO. If he abuses me verbally, I can hang up. At first I had alot of guilt but I have begun to love and respect myself more and the guilt is much less.

  5. Tim Brownson
    Tim Brownson says:

    Excellent article and I’d like to add something else if I may.

    I find that some clients can’t bring themselves to move from saying I need to, have to, must do etc straight to want to, love to etc. There is middle ground that is ‘flat’ and that is saying I will do, I’m going to etc. It doesn’t have the uplifting feeling that the latter phrases have, but it starts to move the client in the right direction.

  6. jrose
    jrose says:

    Hi HR,
    The feed doesn’t work if you just paste the URL into Google’s feed reader (you get the welcome to WordPress post), but if you click on the big orange feed button at the top of the blog and add it to your Google reader via the Feedburner route, it works fine.

    Hope that helps 🙂


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  1. […] No one is a "slave" to their lives, yet many people act like they are. Martha's post Do you really HAVE to do anything? includes a great method of finding what you want, and then CHOOSING to do […]

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