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How to break the stranglehold of ‘I have to…’


Sally (not her real name) found herself in a dilemma:

She wanted to attend one of my workshops, but it clashed with her own work schedule. But since at the time only one or two other people were involved, it was easy for me to be flexible and change the date. She accepted gratefully.

It was only later that she realised that the new date clashed with a once-in-a-lifetime experience  – an event commemorating WW1 – that she wanted to share with her son.

So she was torn.

Whilst she felt sad at the prospect of missing the event with her son, she also felt she ‘HAD TO’ attend the workshop instead, because it had been re-arranged to suit her.

What would you do?

Just pause here a minute to reflect on your own responses to this. What are you thinking? What would you say? If it was your dilemma, what would you choose to do? How would you make your decision?

Would you be weighing up the value of the family event?  Wondering who would be affected if you didn’t attend the workshop? Or maybe you’d be thinking in terms of what you think she ‘should’ do. If so, you would be trying to make a rational decision.

How this would play out for Sally

If Sally were to go down that road, and chose ‘family’, she might justify her choice to herself on the grounds that ‘there will be other workshops to go to in the future’ and ‘my son would be disappointed if I wasn’t there’ – and ‘the event won’t ever happen again’.

But that doesn’t deal with her self-critical internal voice that was saying ‘the time was rearranged to suit you – you can’t go back on that agreement – you’ll be putting people out’ as well as berating her for being forgetful.

So either way, she would be left with uncomfortable feelings.

What else could she do?

I suggest that a way out of the dilemma is to:

  • look at the underlying needs/values that she wants to satisfy
  • address the belief that she ‘HAS TO’ do something
  • be understanding of herself and give herself permission to change her mind.

How would this play out?

My reading of Sally is that she values:

  • support and shared experiences: these would be reflected in a choice to attend the event involving her son
  • learning – which is why she wanted to attend the workshop
  • appreciation – which she expressed at the beginning of her email
  • consideration of other people – which I believe is where her perception that she ‘had to go to the course’ comes from.

I am wary of people doing things in the belief that they ‘HAVE TO’. It’s all too likely that this would undermine the learning from the workshop.

I would like each one of us to hold the belief that we can change our minds – provided that we do this with grace and consideration for others involved.

My suggestions

So if you, like Sally, find yourself in a similar dilemma and with similar needs, and not knowing what to say, here are some suggestions:

  • Begin by expressing appreciation of what had been done to take you into account (as Sally did at the beginning of the email she wrote to me): e.g. I appreciate your taking my work schedule into account and your flexibility and willingness to change the times.
  • Explain what has happened: e.g. When I said ‘yes’ to the proposed new time, I had forgotten that my son was taking part in an event at the same time.
  • Describe the needs you want to meet: e.g. It’s really important to me that we do things as a family and that we support each other – which is why I am wanting to be there to watch. And this means not attending the workshop. I’m regretting this because I like to carry through on what I agree to.
  • Show an awareness of the possible effect this might have: e.g. I value the workshops and hope that there will be sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile for you and satisfying for participants.
  • Ask if your decision has triggered any discomfort in the other person – even if you fear that person might be angry or upset. (This is not because you might change your mind: rather, because you care – and show that you care – about how other people are affected by your decisions) e.g. I hope that you can hear the reason for my choice but if it brings up any strong reaction in you, would you tell me?

And if I were to respond?

I might say to Sally:

  • I’m disappointed that you won’t be coming to the workshop because I enjoy working with you.
  • I appreciated your awareness of the potential impact on me.
  • I would not enjoy your coming on a workshop because you thought you HAD to…
  • … so I celebrate your decision to prioritise your family because it tells me that you are in touch with what would make life wonderful for you on a particular day.


What if….?

What if you were to write an email along the lines that I suggested to Sally and instead of an understanding reply, you received an angry and disapproving one? What might you do next? I would suggest sending more empathy in return.