One word (Photo)

Dr. Gilby breaks down how changing our words can change our perceptions, March 21, 2019.

Dr. Rhonda Gilby is a clinical psychologist with a long association with Western University as a student, a psychology professor and a counsellor for Brescia University College students.

Note: A version of this letter was previously posted on Dr. Gilby's blog.

I am a clinical psychologist. When I work with students who are looking for some help coping with the various concerns in their life, one type of therapy that frequently makes a lot of sense to me is cognitive behaviour therapy.

Cognitive behaviour therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions about a situation affect how we feel about it and what we subsequently do. This means that the same event can produce very different reactions in different people depending upon their thoughts and interpretations of the experience. When thoughts about a situation change, emotions and behaviours can change too.

The other day, my sister published the following post on Facebook that illustrates this principle of cognitive behaviour therapy: “Every time you catch yourself saying ‘I have to,’ say I ‘get to’ instead. Changing that one little word has the power to change everything in your brain.”

A small shift in the way that you think about a situation can have a big impact.

For example, thinking “I have to work out this morning” makes it sound like a chore or an obligation. Thinking “I get to work out this morning” suggests a joy, honour, advantage. “I get to work out this morning” emphasizes that you are well enough to work out and are trying to contribute to your own good health.

For example, “I have to study for my upcoming exam” suggests that you are obligated to do it, but it is not something that you want to do. Changing your thinking to “I get to study for an upcoming exam” implies that you recognize that you are fortunate to have the opportunity to be at university, to now be learning, in detail, new things that (presumably) interest you and that will help prepare you for a more positive future.

Changing that one little word changes the focus from a complaint to a feeling of gratitude, acknowledging the goodness in your life and feeling appreciation for what you have. Changing that one little word can move you from feeling stressed to feeling blessed.

Gratitude is becoming an important focus of psychology research. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is a leading scientific expert on gratitude. His research has found that people who practice gratitude show better physical health (e.g., stronger immune systems, better sleep habits, fewer aches and pains), better psychological functioning (e.g., more joy, pleasure, optimism, happiness and resistance to stress) and social benefits (e.g., more helpfulness, more generosity, less loneliness and a higher sense of self-worth).

Practicing gratitude is good for our bodies, our minds and our relationships. Changing just one little word, going from “have to” to “get to,” could be a simple practice that you can use to better focus on the gifts that you get to be grateful for in your life.

Take care, and focus on all of the special things in your life that you are getting to do.

Dr. Gilby is writing a blog where she shares tips that she has gathered from her work as a clinical psychologist and her years of teaching psychology courses. It provides information and strategies to help students work on coping with stress. You can check out the blog at


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