These common phrases may ruin your life. Seriously.

Our language not only reveals our thoughts but reinforces them.

Have you ever wanted to slap your friend in the face so they can sober up and see things straight? Have you ever felt that they are doing more harm than good to themselves, but they won’t admit it? I am guilty of this. I felt useless when someone I care about needs my support, but all I can offer is, “That’s okay. You are going to be fine.” To help a person, we need to understand them. Wouldn’t it be great to listen beyond the word and learn the messages?

What’s your friend really saying?

Suppose you were at a bar with a friend, and he says he wanted you to weigh in on this thing.

“You know I’ve been working hard on my restaurant chain, right?”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“It’s my wife. I love her, but she makes me so mad!”
“Well. What happened?”
“She wants me to take her to dinner twice a week. I can’t do that. I just don’t have the time.”
“I know you are on a tight schedule. But don’t you want her to be happy?”
“Of course, I do. But I have to do this. I have to be there to make sure all the work is done right.”
“I see. The business just started taking off.”
“Right! I need time to reach stability. If only my wife were more patient, none of these drama would happen.”
“Don’t you think you can perhaps make up to her in other ways?”
“I know what you’re saying, but I am not the romantic type. Okay? That’s just the way I am.

Revealing the thoughts

Does that sound like a regular day-to-day complaint to you? Perhaps you’ve once played the part of the friend in the story as well? Instead of judging your friend, I am more curious about some of the thoughts and beliefs that his words reveal.

  1. “She makes me so mad.”
    — My emotion is controlled by others.
  2. “I can’t do that. I just don’t have the time.”
    — Limited resource determines what I do.
  3. “I have to do this.”
    —I have no choice over some circumstances
  4. “If only my wife were more patient.”
    — Others are responsible for growing up.
  5. “That’s just the way I am.”
    — I don’t grow

The limiting phrase of “I have to.”

You can see how each belief implied by our language can do to our mental capabilities. Take “I have to do this,” for example. Do you really have to do anything? Didn’t the friend “choose” to stay and work and is perfectly aware there’s a trade-off for his wife’s happiness? Didn’t he “choose” not to look for better solutions that can satisfy both needs?

If you use the phrase “I have to” too often, you start to believe that you are powerless over circumstances and other people. You reinforce the belief that you live a life where circumstances are more significant than you. If your friend wants to sacrifice his wife’s happiness over the business, that’s his choice. But could he stop sounding like a victim? He knows the trade-off.

And you know what’s the perk of saying “I have to”? At the moment of saying, “I have to,” you no longer need to worry about any other possibilities anymore. You can skip the hassle of looking for different creative approaches. It is the easy way. It is the lazy way to live your life. Saying “I have to” is just convenient.

The power of “I choose to”

What’s the alternative? If you are determined to find a better solution, you will find one. But finding what’s good for you takes time and energy. So, while we cannot possibly invest our time to expand our knowledge and creativity in every one of our decisions, we can ensure the most important ones are done right. You will put everything you have on the table, and you own the decision you make as a result.

Make the decision now to own your choices.

Never say “I have to” because you simply never have to do anything. Instead, own your decisions like a grown-up and say “I choose to” instead.

Pain and gain come with any choice

Weighing on the pain and gain is the key to any decision, and any decision will always have both. For example, suppose you are working on a demanding job to support your family, but you don’t like the job. You want to put bread on the table, and you know it’s the best job you can do for now. The pain is acceptable, so you do it. Then I congratulate you that you know your trade-off well. You’ve selected the best option in your options pool to gain something and to lose something.

No matter where you are in life, you will make progress if you are willing to put in the work. More options will eventually open up if you start looking for other possibilities, improve yourself, and be creative.

Do it for yourself

But the key is, no matter how good or bad the situation is, saying “I have to” will always do more harm than good. For one, you are limiting your options. That’s bad for your future. For two, you naturally feel victimized because you think this is not your decision. That’s bad for your emotion.

Why would you choose to feel bad or have a limited future?

On the contrary, saying “I choose to” means you recognize that you have the freedom to choose. That’s the inner freedom that matters. Everything is a choice, from an act to thought to a belief.

The reactive language vs. the proactive language

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the language that limits your possibility is called “reactive language” because it only reacts to our circumstances. People who exercise their freedom to choose use “proactive language” instead. The following is the example of reactive language turned proactive.

There’s nothing I can do → Let’s look at our alternatives
That’s just the way I am → I can choose a different approach
He makes me so mad → I control my own feelings
They won’t allow that → I can create an effective presentation
I have to do that → I will choose an appropriate response
I can’t → I choose
I must → I prefer
If only → I will

— Stephen Covey

Feel the difference yourself

Challenge 1 — What’s your “I have to”?
Do you have things that you often do but would rather not?
What’s the gain, and what’s the pain?
Try saying both “I have to” and “I choose to” in each of the scenarios.
Do you notice any difference?

Challenge 2 — Be aware of the reactive language
Memorize some of the reactive language listed above and be more aware of how you and the people around you use them. Then, when you spot this reactive language, try to replace them with proactive language. Don’t you feel much more powerful, confident, and in control?

With a slight tweak of language, you are shifting your paradigm from limiting to liberating. I hope you’ve enjoyed the change.

Inspired by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People



Snippets rephrased and dissected from the legendary book by Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

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Po H

I coach for happiness. I take the stance that life is here for you to enjoy! 😉 When the foundation is taken care of, whatever you do will be a success! 😎