Several years ago, I had a friend who was in the market for a new car. In the process of car shopping with this friend, I decided that I would sell the car that I was driving and get a new car for myself as well. I got my new car, which was actually just new to me, and for a while everything with the car went smoothly. Once the warranty on the car expired, however, I began to have problem after problem; some months, the car seemed to be in the repair shop as often as it was in on the road! One day, while my car was in the shop for the umpteenth time, a coworker (who had given me many rides to work) challenged me to consider that my car could be called a “lemon.” The car had seemed fine at first; in fact, it had worked fine — for a while! The car wasn’t working the way I wanted any longer, though; it wasn’t going to be able to take me where I wanted to go.
As we begin 2013, many of us will be thinking about where we want to go this year — figuratively, at least, in terms of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives. If we aren’t happy with our weight, for example, we may be planning a new gym routine, or to change our eating habits. If we are tired of losing track of when bills are due, or where we have left our keys, we may be considering ways in which we can improve our organization at home. So often, whatever it is that we want to be different in the new year, we frame a related resolution in terms of something that we “need” or “have” to do. We think, “I need to lose 10 pounds — no more excuses!” or “I’m so sick of not being able to find anything — I just have to get organized!” And why wouldn’t we have these kinds of pressured thoughts, given the sense of anxious urgency that we sometimes experience to make these changes in our lives? Unfortunately, as helpful as such thoughts would seem to be in motivating us to take action, and supporting us to maintain what we start, I don’t know that they work very well for many of us; in fact, I would argue that these kinds of thoughts — “I need to …” and “I have to …” — can actually get in our way of creating the differences that we want for ourselves, in our lives. Just as we can talk about some cars as “lemons,” we can talk about certain thoughts as “lemons,” too; they end up being more trouble than they are worth, and sooner or later we realize that they just aren’t able to take us where we want to go.
What makes these kinds of thoughts “lemons”? What’s wrong with saying to ourselves, “I need to …” or “I have to …”? Let me clarify. From my perspective, the issue is not one of right or wrong, but what works best or most often for us, and what does not. In my own experience, when I am thinking in terms of “I need to …” or “I have to …” I notice an internal grimace, an energetic “sour face,” so to speak (think about the expression on someone’s face when that person tastes the tartness of a lemon). For me, “I need to …” and “I have to …” create a sense of motivational “drag” rather than enthusiasm or excitement. I even start to feel a bit anxious about what it is that I have resolved to do. “I really need to get to the gym today!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening!” I have come to associate the tense response that I experience with the idea that these thoughts come from a fearful or an already anxious frame of mind. “I really need to get to the gym today because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” “I just have to finish this blog post by Sunday evening; it will be awful if I don’t get it published on Monday morning like I told myself I would!” Do you hear the anxious all-or-nothing thinking in “I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” and the catastrophic thinking in “it will be awful [if I don't finish this blog post by Sunday evening] …”? How about the possibility of selective attention and memory in the second of these examples if I told you that one time, I had trouble getting a post done by Sunday evening, but was able to work on it on Monday, and just published it Monday evening, then, instead of Monday morning? The world did not end.
So what’s the alternative? For me, what works better — and feels better, frankly — is to think in terms of “I want to …” or “I can …” (desire and opportunity) rather than “I need to …” or “I have to …” (desperation and obligation). Now, I can almost hear the objections that I have made to this notion in the past, which are perhaps yours as well: “But I really do need to lose this extra weight because …” For some of us, the reasons for thinking in terms of “need” in this situation may range from controlling diabetes to keeping up with young children to fitting into our pants (“New clothes cost money, and we’re saving for a trip to Florida. Oh, no … what will I look like in a bathing suit?”). However, there is also a “want” that goes along with each of these scenarios that we can apply to our resolution to get to the gym. “I want to get to the gym because I want to keep up with my kids. Plus, it will feel so good to have gone to the gym, to be able to say that I went, that I did it!” For many of us, “I want to keep up with my kids!” will create a very different feeling than “I really need to get to the gym because if I don’t, I’m never going to lose this extra weight!” We can talk about this different feeling as having a different kind of energy — anabolic, versus catabolic (terms that Bruce D. Schneider, author of Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), has borrowed from the vocabulary of biology and physiology in relation to the processes of metabolism). Anabolic energy builds us up, supports us, while catabolic energy drains us, tears us down, and fuels our experiences of anxiety. While the sense of pressure that we get from catabolic energy can have short-term benefits — think of a cheetah on the plains of Africa that bursts into high-speed to catch its prey — this kind of energy ends up wearing us and others out if we keep it up for too long (even the cheetah can’t keep up these extreme speeds indefinitely!). For many of us, the catabolic energy of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts just can’t take us as far as (so, ultimately, where) we want to go, and can actually get in our way, then, of creating the positive, sustained experiences of what we want to be different for ourselves, in our lives.
Whenever this time of year rolls around, and I find myself reflecting on what I want to be different for myself, in my life, in the coming new year, I think back to the car that I bought several years ago, and how — for a time, in the context of getting back and forth to work, around town to run errands, etc. — it served me well. When I began to have problems with the car on a regular basis, I had the opportunity to re-evaluate its value to me, and determined that it was adding to my sense of stress and anxiety; I could no longer count on it to take me where I wanted to go. The same has been true for me of “I have to …” and “I need to …” thoughts, and the same may be true for you as well. These thoughts are not special to the end of any given year, of course, but tend to surface in our practice of making New Year’s resolutions. As we begin 2013, I want to think more often in terms of “I want to …” and “I can …” so that I can experience the anabolic energy that will help me reach my other goals. I want to improve my organization at home so that I can spend less time trying to find my keys, or worrying about which bills have yet to be paid, and more time working on my blog!
Where do you want to go?
Best wishes for a wonderful 2013!
For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts at thoughttonic.com; you can follow this blog, by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or RSS feed.