Avoid Shoulding Yourself

Deeply ingrained in our consciousness, should is a common and seemingly-innocuous word, but it’s one of the most destructive and tyrannical words in all of language. This four-letter word, and the patterns of thinking surrounding it, leads to guilt, shame, disengagement, disconnection, stress, and depression.  Not only that, but should represents only a perception of reality and is never anything more than an illusion.

When I ran a search in my digital journal for the word “should,” I found way too many phrases like these: “I should have done things differently. It should not be so hard to get to church on time. I look for excuses not to do the things I know I should. He shouldn’t have treated me like that. I know I shouldn’t care what she thinks of me, but I do. I should always remember what a blessing they are.”

I was astounded at how often I’ve been using this word to myself, and the extent to which it blocks out peace and happiness. Every one of these “shouldy” journal entries was a downer, even the ones that on the surface appeared to be positive attempts to find solutions and improve the quality of life. But at their core, they are all condemnations. Being a critic and judge doesn’t build up, but only tears down. Writing these things did very little good and mainly made me feel negatively about myself and/or look down on others.

Should ruins relationships, including our relationship with ourselves, by eliminating tender feelings of love, compassion and empathy. It is not possible to love and feel connected with others when we are blaming and judging them. And when “shoulding,” we use judgment to lay a rationale for assigning blame and instilling shame. How is it anything but arrogantly self-centered to ever think that other people should do such and such, or that we are any kind of authority over what they think and do with their lives?

When it’s not destructive, “shoulding” is ineffective. When we tell ourselves or someone else what they should or shouldn’t do, the person will usually resist. In Nonviolent Communication, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg writes: “Should implies that there is no choice. Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy–our strong need for choice. We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a should.” This is the root of the reason why it’s so hard to follow through when we tell ourselves, “I should start eating better/exercising more/going to bed earlier,” or whatever change we’d like to make. It’s also why our spouses and children resist compliance when we tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing.

Even if the person complies for one reason or another, it won’t contribute to a lasting pattern of behavior. People need to have an emotional experience attached to their own beliefs about right and wrong, in order to have those convictions deeply seated enough to anchor their behavior throughout their lives.

What’s more, telling ourselves or someone else after the fact what they should or shouldn’t have done not only changes nothing about what happened, but prevents the person from learning a lesson or having a conviction about it because it focuses them on their wrongness rather than on solutions.

Musts, Shoulds, and Have Tos represent inflexible beliefs about how things ought to be. This is a characteristic of the fixed mindset and can lead to an addiction to perfectionism, which is shame-triggering and dooms us to failure, since being or even appearing perfect all the time is ultimately an impossible pursuit. You might ask, what’s so bad about shame anyway? Doesn’t it serve a purpose in motivating us to be better? This is really a topic for another day, but Dr. Rosenberg expresses it well here:

“If the way we evaluate ourselves leads us to feel shame, and we consequently change our behavior, we are allowing our growing and learning to be guided by self-hatred. Shame is a form of self-hatred, and actions taken in reaction to shame are not free and joyful acts. Even if our intention is to behave with more kindness and sensitivity, if people sense shame or guilt behind our actions, they are less likely to appreciate what we do than if we are motivated purely by the human desire to contribute to life.” from Nonviolent Communication

So what can we do instead of “shoulding” if we would like things to be different? Here are four suggestions:

1. Talk about your preferences using expressions conveying that it would be nice,  or it would be fun, etc. but it doesn’t have to happen that way. Nothing is actually a must because we always have a choice. Instead of “I should go and support the school,” tell yourself, “It would be helpful if I choose to go support the fundraiser.” Instead of “I shouldn’t have said that,” tell yourself something like, “It wasn’t very skillful of me to have made that remark. Next time I will be more effective saying something like ________.” But that’s all just semantics, you might argue. True, but the quality of the words we choose to use actually has a big impact on feelings and the way the message is received.

2. Practice using self-empathy. We often beat ourselves up with shaming thoughts like, “I should never have done that! I’m always messing up! How could I be so stupid? When will I ever learn?” Instead, focus your attention on the unmet needs underlying our unskillful behavior. Connect with your emotions and give yourself permission to really feel them. For example, if you’re feeling disappointed and frustrated about the extent to which you yell at your kids, instead of condemning yourself, try to figure out what your unmet needs might be and look for solutions. Maybe you need more sleep. Maybe you need more support from your partner. Maybe you need tools to offload your anger in different ways. Maybe you need diversions or hobbies. Pat yourself on the back for being a loving-enough parent that you want to show up better for your family.

3. Try the mental exercise of flipping it around in your mind. If you are really convinced that you or someone else really really should be doing something, try to find at least one reason that it might be in the person’s best interest to do the opposite. While this exercise won’t always result in altered rules or expectations, it can help you be more understanding if the person chooses not to comply. Here are some examples:

  • Why should my daughter NOT clean her room? Because then her toys are already out and ready to play with. Because she knows mother will pick up the dirty laundry for her, so why should she bother? Because she’d rather use her time and energy playing with friends than cleaning.
  • Why should my husband NOT take me out on dates? Because he’s too tired and stressed from work to worry about planning a night out in advance. Because he knows I’ll plan it if he doesn’t. Because he really would rather veg out on the TV at home than go out.
  • Why SHOULD my son hit his siblings or friends? Because his parents have modeled lashing out as an option when frustrated, or haven’t taught him other ways to handle these feelings. Because he needs others to understand just how frustrated and pained he feels in the moment. Because he can get his way quickly by ruling other kids through fear.

4. Use declarations affirming that you, or others, are completely acceptable the way they are right now. One I got from Carol Tuttle that I love and use often is: “I am enough; therefore, what I do is enough. What I do I choose to do, according to God’s guidance and what is correct for me and my family.” Repeating this daily can help you get rid of pesky thoughts of should and have to.

Readers, I’d love your feedback and reactions. Has should been hurting your relationships and happiness? What tips do you have to help those struggling with this?

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