Stop “Should”ing on Yourself
“When we are capable of living in the moment, free from the tyranny of “shoulds,” free from the nagging sensation that this moment isn’t right, we will have peaceful hearts.”
— Joan Borysenko, A Woman’s Book of Life
“Shoulds” are a form of distorted thoughts – thought patterns that have become habitual and unchecked; thoughts that may have become unconsciously out of balance. As such, they often do not reflect the reality of your experience. Nonetheless, when you are plagued by “shoulds” permeating your thoughts, they are likely to provoke you to react; since you generally believe them at the time, they may have significant power over you.
“Shoulds” arise from your beliefs. As Matthew McKay, Ph.D. and Patrick Fanning explain, “Since most beliefs and rules are formed in response to needs, they have nothing to do with truth or reality. They are generated by parental, cultural, and peer expectations and by your needs to feel loved, to belong, and to feel safe and good about yourself.”1 If you don’t live up to your “shoulds,” you judge yourself to be a bad and unworthy person, perhaps torturing yourself with guilt and shame. Not only do you hold yourself accountable to these expectations, you also tend to project these same expectations onto others and judge them by how they live up to these “shoulds” as well.
Then again, not all of your beliefs, rules, and “shoulds” are unhealthy. You can tell whether they are healthy or unhealthy by examining them and applying the following criteria:1
Healthy Values Unhealthy values
- Flexible (exceptions and quotas) Rigid (global, no exceptions or quotas)
- Owned (examined and tested) Introjected (unquestioned acceptance)
- Realistic (based on consequences) Unrealistic (based on “rightness”)
- Life-enhancing (acknowledge your Life-restricting (ignore your needs and feelings)
needs and feelings)
With mindfulness, you have the opportunity to notice when you are being tortured by “shoulds.” In these moments of awareness you are able to examine the nature of these beliefs to understand better whether they are healthy or unhealthy. Question whether these “shoulds” make sense given who you are right now. If they are unhealthy, you may notice the presence of guilt, conflict, obligation, or avoidance in a particular area of your life; these “shoulds” are often used by your internal critic to attack your self-esteem. To address these unhealthy beliefs, you can deliberately challenge and revise them so that they better match your reality. For example, if you have the thought, “I shouldn’t make mistakes.” you can counter that with the response, “Not making mistakes was important to my father. However, this job is new to me and I am just learning. I can only learn by trying and sometimes that means that I will make a mistake.” Alternatively, you may be able to let go of the unhealthy “shoulds” once you are able to acknowledge their presence and the effect they are having on you. On the other hand, if you examine “shoulds” that are troubling you and determine them to be healthy guidelines, then you can more consciously choose how to respond in a way that is consistent with these beliefs and no longer be preoccupied by them.
Arleen’s story, freeing herself from “shoulds”:
Arleen recently participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. When she first arrived in the class, she was challenged with problems sleeping. Over the weeks, as Arleen learned mindfulness practices and became more aware of her thoughts, she started to recognize an insidious “should list.” As she described it, “the thinking is that I have all these “shoulds” in my mind waiting to be accomplished. If I don’t hold fast to them then one will slip by and not get completed. There are all sorts of “shoulds”: I should change the closet light, should get my taxes done, should call my brother, should dust the baseboards, etc.”
As an experiment Arleen gave herself an hour to write down 50 “shoulds.” She knew she’d never be able to come up with 50 but she decided to use the rest of the hour to prioritize the list so she would get something accomplished with this seemingly wasted hour. Paper and pen in her hand, at 3p.m. she began making her list. It started slowly; five “shoulds,” ten. Then she stopped counting as they began flowing out of her pen. Soon, one page was filled and another. When she finally stopped writing, Arleen had three pages filled with “shoulds.” It was 4:30; she had been writing for an hour and a half. Every “should” was there on the paper to be saved, looked over and scratched off as accomplished.
“It felt great,” Arleen proclaimed, “I knew it was all safely written down so nothing would or lost or forgotten. I put it in the desk drawer. Ta dah! Done, accomplished. That night, 10:30pm I head to bed, turned off the light and fell asleep. The next morning, at 8a.m., I woke up. Gosh, I’m usually up at 5:30a.m. Oh well, it feels good. The night, I slept eight hours and the next night and the next.”
Through mindfulness practice, as you develop greater awareness of the nature of your thoughts, you, too, can free yourself from the tyranny of “shoulds” and, instead, enable yourself to live in this present moment.
1. McKay, Matthew, Ph.D and Fanning, Patrick. Self-Esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1992.
“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”
— Albert Einstein
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