We all have desires, purposes, objectives... So, for the holidays, in (some of the) homes, not only Christmas trees and cakes are prepared, but New Year's resolutions as well.
If the trees and the cakes certainly induce unbridled enthusiasm, I wonder what kinds of emotions can these objectives, set at the beginning of the year, generate? Could it be happiness and determination or, on the contrary, anxiety and even depression? We find the answer only if we listen to our inner voice, the one we use when talking to ourselves, in a ceaseless interior dialogue. How do we talk, what words do we use in order to tell or recall our aspirations?
There are two ways of speaking, the WANT way and the MUST way, which in fact reflect two very different ways of living.
The WANT way
When I live in the WANT way, I set purposes I want to fulfill in order to be more accomplished, happier, live an easier life, help my family. I would be happy to fulfill them, but if something bad or unforeseen happens and the plan doesn't have the desired outcome, the nonfulfillment of the purpose will not affect my personal value. Maybe I’ll be frustrated or sad, but I will definitely get past it. Let’s take a look at an easy example: I want to relax, to spend my holiday on an island, I truly want that, it will give me unforgettable memories with my loved ones. At the last minute, something happens that makes me cancel my trip (an urgent matter in my family or at work or the flight gets cancelled). I will probably be disappointed, but I will recover and I will find another solution to fulfill my wish: either a new way to relax or another time in the near future when I can go to that place.
The WANT way means the energy to follow your purpose, offering yourself at the same time space for internal freedom, which allows you to be open to the unforeseeable or the alternatives.
The MUST way
When I talk to myself using the MUST way, the objectives sound more or less like this (this if I’m in a “good” mood of honesty towards myself): “I MUST do this project perfectly, otherwise I’m not a good professional” or “I MUST go on this island trip, otherwise I worked for nothing the entire year”.
In the MUST way, purposes are accompanied by what Albert Ellis (Founder of the CBT therapy) called “irrational beliefs”. An irrational belief leads to a horrible negative consequence, most of the time generalized, which I associate with the lack of an achievement. In other words, when the New Year’s list contains the word “must”, I will visualize not only the happy version in which those things really happen, but mostly a catastrophic unhappy state which I associate, irrationally, with the case in which those things won’t happen.
How do I feel when I “threaten myself” with these formidable consequences, when in my inner mirror the “happy” purposes go hand in hand with the most “unhappy” aftermaths? Stressed, anxious. Life becomes a dichotomy, either very good or very bad. I approach my purposes full of stress, with the hatchet of the negative consequences, which threaten to slump onto me. In the best case, it is possible that I don’t enjoy anything, even if I reach my purposes. In the worst case, when something negative will happen, I would already live subjectively and would have already amplified the negative consequence I anticipated. If I don't manage to go on the desired island trip, I will be overwhelmed by the negative faith (irrational, but strong) that I have worked in vain, that I always work in vain, and I will feel depression or fury.
What can I do?
A first step would be for me to identify the types of must, the imperatives I use when I phrase my wishes. Albert Ellis, inspired by Karen Horney, proposes 3 types of unconditional imperatives:
1. Imperatives oriented against the own self: “I must be accepted as a leader... I must be perfect in everything I do”. The emotions associated with these imperatives are anxiety, lack of value, self-contempt when we don’t reach the heights of our own imperative.
2. Imperatives oriented against the others: “The others must love me as I am, to approve of me all the time, to be sensible of my needs”. These imperatives come with feelings of fury, hate, they provoke fights or violence. Think about the couples in which at least one of the partners believes he/she knows how the other should behave.
3. Imperatives oriented against the environment: “There must be more equity at the work place... More civilization in the society... More order in traffic”. When our beliefs are marked by these imperatives, we easily become intolerant, depressed and angry.
And the next step is to learn to talk with myself in a friendly manner, either in a curious way (asking myself from where did I adopt these imperatives), either with empathy (looking beyond imperatives to my profound need behind the purpose), either rationally (disputing with arguments my irrational beliefs).
The relationship with our own desires can make us happy or unhappy. The difference, like in any other relationship, is the “tone” we use when talking to our own selves.