Stop-Should-ing
How often do you should on yourself?
You will know what I’m talking about if you ever get the feeling that you’re living a life you never really wanted.
You wind up simply existing, doing what you think other people think you should do.
If you’re like most people, you have forgotten what you even want and simply live according to how you should:

  • You should be grateful to be alive.
  • You should forgive.
  • You should be compassionate.
  • You should meditate.
  • You should give back.
  • You should be able to do nothing.
  • You should be productive.
  • You should de-clutter.
  • You should take more trips.
  • You should appreciate what you have.
  • You should spend more time with your kids.
  • You should want to spend more time with your kids.
  • You should have more fun.
  • You should spend less time on technology.
  • You should have more sex.
  • You should want to have more sex.
  • You should laugh more.
  • You should lose weight.
  • You should exercise more.
  • You should drink less.
  • You should be happier.

Should-ing yourself can come in two forms:

  1. Doing what you think others expect you to do, or the “right” thing despite what your hopes, your conscience, and your gut may be telling you. This is often rooted in a sense of guilt or in a hope of gaining approval from others.
  2. You relive past mistakes over and over again, saying, “I should have done this” or “I should have done that.”

Whatever your specific “shoulds” are they all add up to the same message — however you currently are, you’re not good enough.
It makes sense really, when you’re a child, your life is pretty much laid out for you. You have a bit of autonomy, but mostly you simply do what you’re told to do. And you know what? There’s comfort and security that comes along with this. Doing what you should do relieves you of the burden of making your own choices and being held accountable for those choices.
Being an adult means taking control of your life and being responsible for yourself. An adult does as they choose, while a child does as they should.
However, some people never make this leap; they struggle with carving out their own path in life. So they flounder. Largely because they’ve never actually figured out what they really want in life, so wind end up picking life goals they think they should have simply because everyone around them – society/television/family/religion tells them they should have those goals. In short, they should on themselves.
Whenever you do things simply to please others or gain their approval, or when you act purely from a sense of guilt, you give up some of your personal power. And this is a path that invariably leads to feelings of resentment, anger, and depression.
What exactly are we afraid will happen if we stop “shoulding” on ourselves?
Many of us have been taught, mistakenly, that if we don’t “should” ourselves into action, we will become selfish slobs unable to move.
Even worse, we may believe that if we don’t “should” ourselves into being good, we won’t be good! This is basically saying that without external control, we would be unkind, ungrateful, un-generous, unproductive, unloving and any other “un” you can add.
That’s quite a vision of ourselves!
“Shoulding” all over ourselves actually strengthens our belief that – left to our own devices – we cannot be trusted.
Should vs Want
Because so much of our behavior is often driven by “should,” we can lose our ability to distinguish what we really “want.”
Instead, we live according to what we thing we “should” want, but no longer know what we actually want. With this foundation it can be easy to confuse the two.
To put this another way: We often know who we are supposed to be, but not who we are.
So how do you change this and stop shoulding on yourself?
It starts by asking yourself throughout the day “Am I doing this because I want to or because I think I should?” If it’s because you “should,” then ask, “Why do I believe I should?” “What do I fear will happen if I don’t do it?” See what happens when you take a moment and simply ask yourself.
Finally, notice if recognizing your choice as a “should” changes the choice itself – or the way it feels to carry out.
Even if your actions are unchanged, by simply identifying your choice as a “should” or “want” you’ve created a meaningful step forward. It will help you begin to know your true motivations and intentions, thereby, knowing yourself better.
Another idea to stop shoulding so much – set aside a period of time as a “should-free” zone, a time when you only attend to that which you “want.”
If something shows up as a “should,” set it aside for later or let it go altogether. If no “want” shows up, no worries as it may take some time for a “want” to actually form inside you. Keep in mind that your “want” can become atrophied, like an under-used muscle. Plus, sometimes a “want” is just to do nothing, so keep an ear out for that as well.
Through these practices we often discover that we are not what we assumed, or better stated, as we were taught to believe.
When we stop telling ourselves that we “should” be good, it turns out that much to our surprise, we are good.
For most people, our natural instinct is to be compassionate and kind; being good simply feels good.
When we stop forcing ourselves to be good (in order to check it off our “should-do” list), and instead, allow our inherent goodness to lead us into action, we feel nourished and full, simultaneously receiving the goodness that we offer.
Goodness that emanates from “want” feels radically different (and better) than goodness that comes from “should.”
When we are aware of the forces that are driving our actions, we can decide how we “want” to live and break free from the tyranny of “should.”
We have been trained to believe in “should” and fear “want,” but this conditioning, with a little practice, can also be undone and re-trained. Start offering your “should” police a day off here and there and get ready to meet someone you may have yet to really  know.

*Adapted from Psychology Today and Art of Manliness

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