Language and Choice

I have to go to work in the morning.

I have to get the house clean.

I have to finish this term paper.

I have to pay my bills.

I have to make this sweater for my mother.

Ever said anything like that? (Be honest, you have!) We all do. It’s an idiomatic quirk of the English language. Idioms are telling, however, and this is something I’ve been examining lately.

I’ve been doing an experiment lately –replacing “have to” with “choose to” or “want to”.

“Honey, I want to get enough sleep not to feel badly in the morning when I go to work, so I want to go to bed now.”

“I know that Martian Spider Silk would make a great sweater, but I am choosing to pay my rent rather than buy the silk at this time.”

“I want to get the house clean.”

I notice a serious emotional difference. Instead of feeling put upon, I feel a sense of power. Now, people often feel different things, but I find that because I am removing “have to” and “should” from my vocabulary, I am experiencing two things:

First, I feel a sense of empowerment. There is this sense of endless possibility, and I could choose any of it. This means, I am much more focused on doing what I really want.

Second, a sense of background guilt is gone. I don’t feel bad if I don’t clean the house. I chose not to! I didn’t skip out on what I “should” do. If I want a clean house more than I want to fuck around on the Internet, I am perfectly free to put the computer down and pick up the cleaning rag.

Now you might say, “But I don’t have a choice — not really!”

But you do. For every Harriet Tubman, there were hundred of people in the ante-bellum South who said, “I don’t like slavery, but I can’t help any of the slave escape. It’s too dangerous.”

What they were not saying was, “I am choosing not to help in this, as I do not want to risk myself/my wife/my husband/my children in this. My immediate family is more important.” This is not a judgment. Were my immediate family not more important to me than the General State of People I Don’t Know, I would be living very differently from how I choose to live.

When you remove “have to” from your life, all of a sudden you are faced with the fact that everything you do is a choice and it is very difficult to hide from facing the reality of choices you don’t want to make or are uncomfortable coping with the consequences of. I choose to be heavy rather than to diet, and I am aware that’s a choice. I choose to write a lot because it works for me and makes me happy. I choose to get rid of clutter, not because it’s acceptable to have a neat house, but because it makes me happy. If I say, “I am choosing not to clean the house” and there is food rotting in the sink, I am directly confronted with the fact that there are things more important to me than whether or not the house stinks. The consequence is there and there is nothing to hide behind.

We live in a culture that trains us to be uncomfortable with facing up to doing what we want. Not only that, but we live in a culture that is not very accepting of choice. You’re supposed to want to earn a lot of money and accumulate a lot of physical things whether that really makes you happy or not. You’re supposed to have children, and God forbid if you say you choose not to.

Facing the fact that everything you do is a choice takes a lot of courage. You really face up to your self in a lot of ways, and it can be a path to self-judgment. You can feel bad about yourself because you really don’t want what you should want, whether or not it’s because of idealism or something more external. It’s a risk, too. Try saying, “I choose to do X” to someone in your life who doesn’t want you to do X. You can get all kinds of reactions from (happily) supportive to downright hostility. You’ll be asked to justify yourself. Now certainly you can choose to, but ya know what? You do not have to make choices that you can explain to another person such that you get an agreement as to the validity of your choice. You might want to. That choice might work best for you. But you do not have to.

It’s always down to choice.

Depressed? Employed? You Can Cope

You feel as if you’re wading through molasses, you find it difficult to make a decision and your ability to concentrate is shot.   Yep, you’re feeling depressed.

This could happen for any of a number of reasons.   In today’s economic climate, it is not unusual to feel pressured about money and work.   This can be a vicious circle.   You feel insecure about your job, you get depressed and you find it harder to be an effective employee.

Employers today are aware of this problem.   They see the loss of productivity and the absenteeism.   Here’s the lucky thing for you: The hiring process is an expensive one, and employee retention is actually very much a cost saving strategy.   Employers do not like high turnover if they can avoid it.   Since you want to do a good job and keep your job, what’s the conscientious worker to do? First things first.   Get help.   Do something.

Most large companies have an employee assistance program.   This is a program specifically designed to help employees experiencing problems in their personal lives that might be affecting their jobs.   These programs are strictly confidential, and will not reflect negatively on one’s career.

Getting help is completely crucial.   According to Dr.  Maynard Brusman, a consulting psychologist with over 20 years’ experience in the employment psychology field, doing nothing is dangerous.   The more you do nothing, the more likely you are to believe that you cannot do anything.   After a time, you can fall into a pattern of learned helplessness, believing that if you have done nothing that there is nothing you can do.   Nothing could be further from the truth.

What can you do for yourself? I mean, even if you go to a counselor, that’s only an hour a week.   So, what can you do?

One of the very best things you can do is get some exercise.   Don’t be annoyed because this is being thrown at you all the time! It’s thrown at you all the time because it is true.   The human body is made to move, not sit behind a desk.   You genuinely need the chemicals your body produces in exercise.

Exercise does not mean a red-line workout that makes you feel like you are going to throw up.   No, no, no.   Going for a nice walk counts here.   Get the heart rate up a little for 1/2 an hour or so –maybe break out in a sweat, but even that is not necessary.   You just want to make sure you move.   Even if you are in poor shape, just go walk slowly for a little while each day.   You will receive emotional as well as physical benefits.

The reason “go out for a walk” is so often touted as a Good Thing to Do is twofold.   There’s the exercise component that gives you a stronger body and floods you with mood enhancing chemicals, but there is the additional benefit of sunlight.   Sunlight is also a proven mood enhancer.   People who work in climate controlled buildings with no windows are going to be more susceptible to mood disorders related to light deprivation.   It is especially crucial for those of you with such issues to Get Outside on occasion, and a walk will do that for you.

Keeping company with positive, upbeat people is also a good idea when you are feeling depressed.   You might feel like hiding from the world, but sometimes getting by yourself and stewing is only going to reinforce negative thought patterns.  Feed your mind with positive things.   Play upbeat music.   Wear colors that encourage a brighter mood.   Focus on activities that give pleasure.

Eating right is also important when you’re suffering from depression.   Stress takes its toll on the body, and doing what you can to keep your body healthy will make it easier to cope.   Do your best to eat a good, balanced diet – especially making sure you get enough of the B vitamins.   These vitamins are useful in combating stress and elevating mood.   Foods high in B vitamins include dried beans, whole grains, fish, dairy products, poultry, eggs, bananas and avocados.   Remember that peanut butter and banana sandwich you ate as a child? When you make it, be sure to use natural peanut butter on whole wheat bread and you have yourself some real, healthy comfort food that is high in B vitamins and will help you to cope with depression.

What do you do if your work performance is suffering? That certainly can and does happen when you’re having a problem with depression at work. One of the most important things to do is to lay out a plan.   Break tasks into small, manageable units -say fifteen minutes.   Even when you’re down in the dumps, you can file for fifteen minutes, or read a report for fifteen minutes, then take a break and make some notes.   This helps to keep you in control and helps to prevent procrastination, a serious problem in a depressed employee.

Some workers use calendaring programs or timers to break up their day and their tasks.   This not only keeps you focused on the tasks at hand, but can be a distraction from negative feelings.   The one caution here is that you do not overwhelm yourself in a situation where you might already feel overwhelm.   Schedule breaks for yourself and be realistic about what you can accomplish.   The whole point of breaking down tasks into small segments is to prevent being overwhelmed.   Donit cram your calendar so full that it is impossible to get anything done.   This will contribute to negative feelings rather than alleviate it.   Prioritizing is essential.

I keep a list of “I don’t feel like it” tasks -little, quick things that do need to be done and can be handled easily.   When I am feeling a bit stressed out or unable to cope, I do one of these little tasks.   Being able to cross something off my to-do list tends to restore my faith in my ability to cope.   Any little ten-minute thing that does not take a lot of brainpower but has a small positive effect is a good thing.   For myself, organizing something tends to improve my mood.   I’ll clean my desk, or straighten one small file drawer.   This is a fairly individual thing.   The only real rule is to make sure that it is one small thing, and that it is not something urgent or something that causes you stress or pressure.   It’s important to make the list beforehand.   Then, when you’re feeling depressed and find thinking difficult, you have a plan.

Talk to your employer about accommodation that will help you in your depression issues.   It is possible that she will be sympathetic.   Employers prefer employees who are proactive, so taking steps to solve your problems reflects positively on you.

Amy, a bookkeeper in a music store, is being treated for depression and is on a medication.   Her employer knows that Amy has a problem with depression and is willing to work with her -giving her flexibility in hours and is willing to keep lines of communication open.

The unfortunate truth is that an employer is not always so accommodating.   Julian, a former employee at a health food store, had this to say:

At my place of employment, there were perfectly pleased to have an employee in the herbs and supplements department who could speak from experience on the various remedies for anxiety and depression, and they were perfectly willing to encourage the product reps to give me freebies, but when it came to actually working with me to let me have a schedule that would allow me to spend a reasonable amount of time with my family – forget it.

What do you do in this situation?

Remember the problem with learned helplessness.   Don’t fall into that.   Taking proactive action is crucial to your personal health as well as your career.   Julian’s choice was to get training to become a baker – a job that has a schedule that gave her time with her family.   She also sought out a position in which she was able to have a wider range of choice in her own work and minimal customer contact. Both Amy and Julian had different work situations and different methods for coping with the problem.   This is often an individual and subjective thing, which is one of the reasons that getting help is a good idea.   A good therapist will help you tailor your solutions to your own individual needs.   While depression is a difficult problem, it is not a hopeless situation.   As always, taking care of yourself is the key.   If you cannot handle the big stuff, take little positive actions.   They will have a net effect.   But whatever you do, try to keep going.