I, like the vast majority of the billions of people on this Earth, have a habit of beating myself up. It’s one of those things we are socialized to do. As a baby we bite mom’s nipple and hear her cry out in pain and displeasure, and so we learn not to do it again to avoid that punishing reaction. As a toddler we learn not to leave our toys in the hallway because Daddy will put us in time-out. To avoid the punishment of time-out we pick up our toys. And so it continues – detentions in school are avoided by us doing our homework, we work hard in order to not be told off for bad grades, scoldings and spankings from our parents teach us our SHOULDS.
We all have our own shoulds. I should wake up early to get to work on time. I should save money for retirement. I should speak kindly to someone who has offended me. I should protect my virginity until I am a married woman. I should go to church on Sunday. I should pay my bills on time. I should complete my education. I should brush my hair 100 strokes before going to bed at night. I should do this, I should be that, and I should go there…
Let’s face it. There is a SHOULD for every minute of our waking lives. In the words of one of my closest friends, a life coach, “We are SHOULDING all over ourselves!”
In a growing awareness around my own shoulds, I have come across some interesting understandings. I don’t have to be right about any of them but this is what has been mined from my own life.
- A SHOULD is a boundary past which a person feels it is impossible to cross without punishment. It’s like an electric fence – you know the ones where the family dog has a collar that sends a jolt of electricity if he gets too close to the borders? Well our SHOULDS are our collars. They send a crippling fear through our being when we hit the edge of our comfort zone.
- We are fully responsible for the fence! In fact, we set the fence up. Now why would the family dog do that to himself? Why would he set the stakes down at the edge of his family’s property and put the collar on his own neck? A dog wants to be FREE! Free to chase the neighbour’s cat or swim in the neighbour’s pool when it gets too hot. It makes no sense that he would do that to himself. Why then would we? Why do we set our own fence up? Yes, as children we are taught our shoulds. But as adults with keys to the house, why do we keep the fence?
- Shoulds get in the way. When you are put on a train running on rails you are only able to follow the direction that those rails go in. People before you have set those rails down, toiled and laboured to lay those tracks. And so, on a train set on rails, you are only able to go where people before you have been. Think of all the places in the world that have never seen a train! Think of all the places that have never seen a human being! To stay on that train is to never be able to see those places. And so it is with shoulds. Your shoulds keep you on the rails. Shoulds take you only where you and those who have taught you have been before. The power of your own mind and the uniqueness of your own creativity and your own journey cannot be found on the rails of shoulds.
- The punishment is never as bad as it seems. Sometimes it doesn’t even exist. Here we are referring to run-of-the-mill shoulds – not the shoulds in the penal code that say things like “You should not rape your neighbour’s wife”. Laws and crimes aside, the freedom beyond your electric fence is more enormous and more delicious than you can ever imagine sat in your own yard. The little electric shock that comes from busting through the barrier is often a small price to pay for so big a prize!
- How we experience the world beyond the should depends very much on whether we are able to leave the should behind. Sometimes we pass the barrier and carry the fence. From shoulds come guilt. What is guilt but a bunch of busted shoulds? Look at something that makes you feel guilt. Look deeper for the should at its foundation. If you took the should out of the foundation, like a jenga tower you’ll see the guilt fall down. I’ll give you an example. Last week I planned to run 9 miles. I set a goal and went a step further and created a should. Each morning, however, I woke up with a pain in my right foot and aches in my knees. I have had knee trouble before and know the danger of pushing too hard and so I opted not to run on those mornings. At the end of the week I had not run my 9 miles and was feeling quite guilty about it. Looking closely at my guilt I found the SHOULD. I SHOULD run 9 miles this week. Taking the should out of the foundation I looked again at the facts – each morning I woke up in pain, that pain would have worsened with running, I was not wrong to not run. And POOF – guilt was gone.
- There are no good SHOULDS. In my humble opinion, shoulds are judgments formed about what is. It isn’t the should that is important, but the thing that is. Shoulds are statements of exclusion, limitation, and punishment around the thing that is. It is very easy to find shoulds in your life that you think are constructive – we all have some shoulds that we like the most. But are they really healthy? A should makes you wrong or right. If you abide by your should you get to reward yourself by feeling good. If you breach your should you get to punish yourself for being bad. I say quit beating yourself up! The world outside of your shoulds is much bigger than all of this punishment and reward stuff! More important still, the SELF you have outside of your SHOULDS is much bigger than all of this!
I’ll leave you with a test to perform on your own life – see if this Should assessment works for you. If it doesn’t and you like your shoulds just the way they are, throw out my opinion without a second thought. But if you face down even the shoulds you like and test them and find them wanting, please feel free to let me know.
Take your favourite shoulds – the ones that you like – and list them out. I’ll list a few of my favourites out for you.
- I should work out and be healthy.
- I should speak kindly to my employees.
- I should work a minimum of 8 hours a day to enrich the lives of my clients.
- I should visit my grandmother weekly.
- I should bathe my dogs once a week.
Now turn your shoulds in to statements of fact, commitment or identity. Neither right nor wrong, these are I DO, I WILL or I AM statements.
- I will work out and be healthy.
- I am an employer who speaks kindly to my employees.
- I do work a minimum of 8 hours a day to enrich the lives of my clients.
- I do visit my grandmother weekly.
- I will bathe my dogs once a week.
When a week passes and I haven’t worked out, what is there to do with my statement? Working out is no longer a SHOULD but a WILL. When a should is broken, the beatings begin. I say, put the bat down. Simply say it again. I will work out and be healthy. Recommit to who you have decided to be and what you have decided to be. Is a should needed to make it happen? I am sure you will see that it isn’t.
Looking forward to hearing about your shoulds!