He whacks the tennis ball with dad-style force, and it flies over the net, heading my direction at top speed. Once again, it arrives before I can get my feet planted, with my racquet set to return the hit. My high school kid eyes widen with disbelief, “How could I have missed it again? Ah, it was going WAY too fast!” Just then, he motions to me, pointing from one ear to the other, and says, “It’s between the ears, kiddo.” This was his shorthand reminder for me to believe in myself, that knowing I can do it is a key ingredient in making things happen. And it was my introduction to a far reaching life lesson.
Fast forward about 5 years and you’d find my dad in the middle of the ultimate battle of his life – the battle FOR his life. I remember the day he showed me the mask, plastic with tiny mesh-like holes. Form fitting, it had been molded to fit around the contours of his face and around his entire head. It held specific markings that indicated where to focus the radiation during treatments. I was in awe and confused when he told me that while receiving each treatment, he’d tell himself that he wanted the experience – that he was choosing it because it was the path to shrinking the tumor, or to at least slowing its growth.
Fast forward another five years and you’ll find me where I am today – in a health situation of my own. Even though he’s not here to give me advice, I have his example to refer to for guidance and I have needed to put this lesson into action sooner than I ever would have thought. So instead of saying, “I can’t eat that because it has too much sodium,” I tell myself “I choose not to eat it because I want to avoid the exaggeration of my symptoms that sodium causes.” And I don’t “have” to do the vestibular rehabilitation exercises that make me feel worse but I “choose” to do them because I want to get better.
Changing our language from “I have to” to “I choose to” and from “I can’t” to “I choose not to” restores our sense of personal agency and puts us back in the role of protagonist within our story. We have choices. We make hundreds of them each and every day. So we are not merely observers in the background without any say.
When have you noticed yourself with an “I have to,” “I can’t,” or “I shouldn’t” thought that makes you feel small? How can you flip the language around in way that is empowering? Maybe “I have to go to the grocery store,” becomes “I will go to the grocery store because I want to have healthy food choices at home.” Or perhaps “I have to take out the trash” really means “I want to take out the trash because I like living in a house that doesn’t stink!” Consider the reason behind your choice to create a statement that you believe to be true – lying to yourself doesn’t do any good – and see how it feels.