Shifting from have-to to choose-to

As I walk, well, scurry, along the streets of our lovely town, I can feel holiday tension lurking around the excitement and fun. Whether on paper, on smartphones or in people's heads, lists of seasonal have-tos are long. There's a lot to accomplish. Time is running out!

Where does inner peace fit into this picture?

The pressure is not imaginary. We really do have to complete some things before certain dates. Hanukkah gifts belong during its eight days, Christmas presents must be wrapped and delivered by a particular date. Solstice will be celebrated today, not just whenever. Donations by Dec. 31.

In the whir of activity, we occasionally remember that this is the season of love, peace and generosity, not crankiness and exhaustion.

How do we get back to living that?

Of course, there's the ever-available and ever-effective advice to take some deep breaths.

There's also a quick mental practice for returning to awareness and choice.

Try this. Take one of your have-tos. For example, "I have to clean out the guest room so my in-laws can stay there." The closet bursting with unfinished crafts projects, my son's baseball equipment he abandoned when he left for college, boxes of receipts to be filed; you get the picture.

Here's the exercise.

First step: I tell myself, "I have to clean out the guest room. Or else."

That "or else" is worth unpacking because it contains lots of information. For example, or else they will have to move things out of the way themselves and they'll be uncomfortable? Or else they'll be offended? Or else I will feel awful because they won't say anything but I'll be telling myself I'm a bad hostess and that they won't like me and that they judge me for being a slob? Plus I'll judge myself for being a slob and a procrastinator?

Clearly I care about my in-laws' comfort and about our relationship. I also value order, even though I haven't created it. Believing that I have to, along with judgments and a sense of duty, has crowded out inner peace. Here comes the shift to motivate my peaceful willingness rather than my sense of obligation.

Second step: I propose to myself, "I choose to clean out the guest room. Because I value ..."

I value consideration and kindness and really do want my guests to be comfortable. I value integrity and I believe that when I invite people to stay in my house I've made a tacit agreement to create a comfortable experience for them. I also value family.

Now, I'm free of the have-to. I'm in choice. That deep breath arises naturally. I clean the room without resentment or tension. Maybe I even ask for help with the project.

Sometimes the option of "I choose not to" pops up.

Aha! This becomes an interesting turn of events.

Using this same example, I choose not to clean the guest room because right now what is most important to me is ease and self-care and inner peace. I don't have the time to clean out the room, I don't know where to put the stuff. I want to spend my time preparing myself to be calm during the festivities. It might be more considerate to pay for my in-laws to stay at a nearby bed-and-breakfast where they'll be more comfortable.

The challenge will be how to communicate this to my in-laws. I can ask for help to practice how I will present this. I may prepare myself for their potential disappointment, and at the same time be optimistically ready to enjoy their possible appreciation. They might feel relieved.

The practice of translating have-tos and shoulds to choose-to leads to acting freely and willingly. Then we live with peace and integrity.

Selene Aitken is a mediator and an international trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. See

Send inner peace articles to

Share This Story