Are Your Habits Exacerbating Your Suffering?

I am going to share one sabotaging habit that I see again and again in my practice, and one that I relied on for years. I want to share my experience and my clients’ because when you’re able to catch and change this particular habit, the shifts you can create in your life (and your health!) are incredibly powerful.

It’s easy to short circuit—in fact, it often begins before we even get out of bed. See if you can guess what it is as I describe the thoughts that used to run through my own head each and every morning:

“I have to get up.”
“I have to make breakfast.”
“I have to pack lunches.”
“I have to shower.”
“I have to get the kids out the door on time.”
“I have to drive them to school in the snow and cold.” (Yes, I live in Wyoming, this can be true even in springtime!)
“I have to rush to work.”
“I have to make sure to get groceries for dinner and lunches tomorrow.”
“I have to, I have to, I have to…”
…all the way until my head would hit the pillow at the end of the day!

That’s right, I’m talking about those two sneaky little words that we say without thinking all day long: have to. (Sometimes these words are also disguised as “need to” or “gotta,” as in, I need to make money, I’ve gotta get to work!) When we “have to” do something, we automatically give our power away. We are seeing the world, or at least our circumstances, as bigger than us.

“Have to” is a clear indicator that the victim mindset is lurking—and, as we know, the victim mindset prevents healing. Not only does it send your body straight to a sympathetic nervous response, but it leads to a really crappy quality of life!

When everything else in your life is running you, what kind of autonomy or empowerment or say do you have? None. And here’s the thing: no matter what your circumstances, that mindset is a choice. The good news is that you can also choose differently.

Our response to life is a choice

Maybe we can’t choose what circumstances are given to us in life—I’m sure you didn’t choose to have autoimmune issues, for example. However, I’ve come to believe that I always have a choice in how I respond to life. Even the things I see as most important—like caring for my kids—are a choice. I don’t have to feed them, nor do I have to take them to school, let alone on time. Technically, I could neglect them and let them fend for themselves. When I think of it this way, I realize that everything I do is something I am choosing to do. I get to do it, because the results align with my values and what I most want to create for myself (and my family) in this life.

Now, I’m not saying that I am waking up thinking, “Tra la la, I get to make lunches and take care of myself too while juggling a hectic day, everything is unicorns and rainbows!” Not even close. There are still challenging times and the victim mindset is a powerful coping tool that we’ve all learned to rely on in some sense at some point, and it can sneak back in. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that replacing the words “have to,” “need to,” and “gotta,” with “get to” or “choose to” in my vocabulary has improved my relationship with myself, with my family, with my clients, and with everyone I interact with—to the point that I’m never going back. It is a simple tool that reminds me of my choice and gives me my power back.

Our words are a reflection of our inner world. Changing “have to” to “get to” (or “choose to”) may not feel important at first, but each time I do it, I remind myself that I have power in this situation. Moment after moment, day after day, that shift adds up to how I feel about my life and myself! When we approach our lives from a place of empowerment, rather than as a victim or a robot completing a to-do list, we add richness, depth, and satisfaction to our experiences. This is especially true for autoimmune sufferers, because coming from empowerment means better access to your parasympathetic nervous state—where healing occurs.

Getting clear about what you’re choosing

Many different variables such as physical and mental health, finances, education, skin color, and more can dictate and in many cases limit the choices we are faced with in a given day. I see my clients get stuck in the truth of that all the time. Part of what I get to do is see and hear them in their struggle, validate it, and still—in spite of how challenging a particular circumstance might be—present the option to choose a mindset of empowerment.

When I am clear about what I want to create and who I want to be, every circumstance that presents itself is an opportunity for me to really live into it. In this way, I see life as working for me, rather than against me.

This isn’t a Pollyanna mindset or faking it ‘til you make it. You may be thinking, “Right, Sarah, but those things you listed at the beginning aren’t choices, they’re things you have to do. ” Let’s dive in a little further and look at some common examples I see in my practice, as well as the underlying values that we can confuse with “have to.”

“I have to get out of bed and go to work.”

Reality check: you could stay in bed. You could find work that you could do from home, or you could simply not work. You could let the world go on around you…it might lead to some unpleasant consequences, but technically you could get away with staying in bed for at least a little while.

Underlying value: you value feeling secure in your finances, and leaving your bed to engage with the world through work is a way to prioritize that value.

“I can’t have gluten/dairy/corn/etc.”

Reality check: You can most definitely have the foods that exacerbate your autoimmune symptoms. I’ve spoken with plenty of people who weren’t committed to shifting their diet, and continued eating the foods that were harmful to them—sometimes to the point of hospitalization! Technically, they could all still ingest those foods, they just paid for it later.

Underlying value: The benefits of avoiding gluten/dairy/corn/etc. outweigh the negative impact on your health, and you value your good health so fiercely that it is definitely not worth continually eating the foods that cause you problems.

“I have to eat differently than the rest of my family.”

Reality check: Could your family join you in avoiding the foods that don’t work for you partially, or entirely? Yes.

Underlying value: You want your family to enjoy a huge variety of delicious food, and you want their choices to be convenient and tasty. You don’t want your kids to miss out on treats that other kids get. This value can feel so important that it’s easy to mistake it as a “have to.”

In all reality, having autoimmune disease is a huge opportunity to learn to listen to our bodies and to figure out what feeds our bodies, minds, and spirits in new and powerful ways. Many people with autoimmune disease say their journey in healing has taught them to nourish themselves and their families better than they ever would have otherwise! There are huge “get to” opportunities everywhere you look in autoimmune disease:

  • I get to listen to my body
  • I get to be mindful in how I fuel myself
  • I get to be deliberate in the activities I choose
  • I get to have powerful and vulnerable conversations in relationship related to how I feel and what I need

There are all kinds of surprising opportunities if we pause to find them.

Try it for a day

Try ditching “have to” for a day. Start paying attention, and throwing in “get to” whenever you get a chance. See what possibilities open up and notice whether a feeling of empowerment follows. Or, if all-out replacing the phrase doesn’t feel achievable at first, just try noticing it for a day. I guarantee you’ll hear it all over the place, from yourself and others.

It sounds like a small shift, but the implications are huge: when we feel like we have agency in our choices, we are able to avoid the sympathetic nervous system response that cuts off our access to healing. Give yourself the gift of choice. Ditch the “have to” and see your day as full of awesome things you’re choosing to do. Try it and let me know what opens up for you!

About Sarah Kolman

Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN, INHC is an AIP Certified Coach, Registered Nurse, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and Contemplative Psychotherapist. Sarah’s unique one-on-one health coaching practice blends her nursing and psychotherapy experience with holistic and nutrition-based health concepts. A passionate student in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, she helps her clients heal by focusing on the brain-body connection and its profound impact on wellness. With Sarah’s support and guidance, clients learn to manage stubborn symptoms that have persisted through countless traditional treatments. Learn more about Sarah’s coaching services by visiting her website, Her book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World is available on Amazon. You can follow Sarah on Facebook.


  • Christine says

    I love this Sarah- the victim mentality gets us nowhere! Thanks for sharing- was helpful this morning 🙂

  • Harmony Van Eaton says

    This is so important, thank you for writing this! I’m seeing too much victim mindset in myself and others lately, this has a huge impact on how we live our lives, this is a very timely topic. I would also add that we can find many phrases that are more empowered, “I want to” or “I’m so lucky that” or any number to phrases with more agency.

    • Sarah says

      Thank you for sharing your insights and intention to focus on an empowered mindset. You are so right about the other phrases, too–“I want to” and “I’m so lucky that.” Nice additions. Thanks for contributing your thoughts. I hope your day is full of “get tos” and “want tos”.

  • Julie DeAngelis says

    I LOVE this!!! I used to facilitate a class about how to avoid victim-thinking and so many of the sayings come into play. It’s amazing how when we use a different verbiage, our mindset shifts.

    I would love to share this article on my social media. How can I share it?

    Thanks Sarah!!!

    • Sarah says

      I’m glad you resonated with the content Julie. It is true how our verbiage guides our mindset–and our words give us insight into our mindset. We have a lot of opportunity to shift our words to consciously create our experience. To share the article, copy the URL at the top of the page and paste on your social media message. Bada-boom-bada-bang!

  • Marco says

    Still, farm animals need to eat and be tended everyday. Sometimes the pig gets annoying when she is hungry, but of course she will not die for 10 minutes extra 🙂

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