“I have to” is fear’s language

How many times a day do you say “I have to…”? The phrase seems innocuous, but when your amygdala, the threat detection center of your brain, hears those words, it pays attention. Because “I have to” is invariably followed by “or something bad will happen.” Whether or not you say the words out loud, your amygdala hears “I have to go to the grocery store” as “I have to go to the grocery store or we might not have any food and will end up starving and DEAD!” or “I have to do my exposure therapy” as “I have to do my exposure therapy because if I don’t I’ll stay sick forever and life will be terrible!” Yes, your amygdala is a drama queen, and if it gets all amped up because of “I have to…” it can activate the fight, flight, or freeze response, making you feel anxious and uneasy.

“I want to” gives YOU the power

The remedy for this problem is simple yet powerful. Turn “I have to” into “I want to.” For instance, “I want to go to the grocery store so I can choose the foods my family likes to eat.” Or, “I want to do my exposure therapy because that’s how I reclaim my life.” The phrase “I want to” is followed by something positive. You’re moving toward something of value, not away from something threatening, so your amygdala isn’t involved. In essence, you’re empowering yourself, not scaring yourself, and that’s one of the keys to motivation.

For a story explaining more about why “I want to” is so powerful, especially when you’re saying that you want to be anxious, see pages 155-156 of Fred. For Dr. Reid Wilson‘s expert guidance on using “I want to do this” as a message of empowerment, see page 272 of Fred.

You can tame OCD and reclaim your life

Sign up for my Shoulders Back! newsletter to receive OCD-taming tips & resources, including notifications of new blog posts, delivered every month to your inbox. My blogs are not a replacement for therapy, and I encourage all readers who have OCD to find a competent ERP therapist. See the IOCDF treatment provider database for a provider near you. And never give up hope, because you can tame OCD and reclaim your life!