I’ve been the King of SHOULDs for many years.
Wait. Before you applaud let me get this straight: this is not a good thing.
You see, I had SHOULDs for everything.
I had SHOULDs for what I should do, like today, tomorrow, in the coming months, or for the next decade. And for my whole life of course.
I had SHOULDs for what I should have done yesterday, 5 minutes ago, in a past life, whatever.
I had SHOULDs on how I should have smartly answered an asshole, what I should have done instead of what I did, what I should wear, what I should say and how, how I should treat people, etc, etc, etc…
Never ending SHOULDs!
And then I had even more SHOULDs.
I had SHOULDs about how people should treat me. I had SHOULDs that people should listen when I talk and not interrupt. (Those ones are tough ones for me!)
I also had SHOULDs that people should appreciate all the good things I do for them and also all the time I spend to help them and take care of them. I had SHOULDs that you shouldn’t hurt me because I would never hurt you. I had SHOULDs that people shouldn’t get angry at me because I’m so nice to them.
So if you also find yourself in these situations, you should keep reading… Kidding, NO MORE SHOULDS!!! But please continue.
Why we’re full of SH…OULDs here doesn’t really matter (hints: DNA, parents, schools, society, corporations, any peer pressure, et caetera). What matters are the consequences of these SHOULDs.
Because every single SHOULD that you put upon yourself creates anxiety and guilt. And every single SHOULD you put onto others creates anger and resentment.
Now I’m not saying that we should never feel anxiety or anger. You see, that’s the point of the article. No SHOULD. No ALWAYS. No NEVER. No MUST. No OUGHT TO. None of these things.
Because the problem with these words is that they are utterly inflexible, categorical and unreasonable. No air to breathe, no space to move.
If you’re about to get run over by a car, yes anxiety might help you be more alert than usual and escape a fatal ending. If you’re being treated unfairly, yes anger might help you get the courage to express your values and set up boundaries so that you’ll not receive the same treatment in the future.
But in these cases anxiety and anger are tools to help you survive physically or psychologically.
If your anxiety is the result of SHOULDs that you put on yourself, and anger is about SHOULDs that you put on others (people but also ideas, concepts) then you’re just creating unnecessary tension.
So there’s a need for a change here.
The problem is not that you want a better life, or that you want to improve, or that you want to be productive, or that you want to express yourself.
The problem is neither that you want to be respected, or that you want to be treated fairly, or that you want to be appreciated.
The solution is never about lowering one’s standards, dropping one’s values and boundaries in the toilet, being passive, apathetic or agreeing with everything.
I want to make this clear because the usual push back against the “Killing the SHOULDs” mindset is people seeing it as a path to becoming lazy as fuck and turning into a victim of the aggressiveness of others.
But this is far from what I’m telling you here.
The only problem, again, is that these SHOULDs just create completely inflexible and demanding rules for yourself. For your own vision of the world. And as far as we’re concerned, our own vision of the world is the only reality. And how we think about it matters.
So there’s a need to create a softer, more rationale approach which will still keep us productive, proactive and also a vociferous defender of our boundaries, but all while staying relaxed.
And the rather simple solution is to replace these high demanding SHOULDs by flexible preferences and desires.
Is that it? Yeah.
What does that mean? Please follow me.
Below are 2 slightly but importantly different statements:
- People should not interrupt me when I talk to them
- I’d prefer people not interrupting me when I talk to them
Can you feel the difference in emotions that these 2 sentences generate?
Can you foresee that, depending on what you tell yourself, your emotional response is going to be rather different the day a person interrupts you?
Close your eyes (well, read first) and repeat yourself the first sentence for half a minute. Then imagine that you’re having a conversation with someone, you’re thinking about the fact that they shouldn’t interrupt you, and surely they do. Focus on the feeling that arises. Try.
Now do the same exercise with the second sentence. Keep repeating, imagine the scene, and focus on the feeling again.
Can you notice any difference?
In the first case you might feel instant anger or rage. The usual reactions would be to shut up and get all resentful, or go full power and well overboard. Both outcomes are not helpful. (My personal tendency would be the former.)
In the second case you might feel mildly annoyed. It is much easier and natural then to just slightly smile, and tell politely the person that you are not finished talking yet. (You can add motherfucker but just in your head.)
In the first case someone violates your inflexible rule and might make you go mental—which is understandable—because it creates a real distress in you.
But in the second case, someone just has a preference which differs from yours. So even if you find it a bit annoying, people have the right to be different. You can then still assert yourself correctly (and firmly if needed), and move on.
- At my age I should be more successful
- I’d like it if I were more successful at my age
First case brings shame, guilt and anxiety. And even if you decide to work hard towards becoming more successful, the fact that it’s all fueled by negative emotions will keep you unsatisfied until the end of times. You’ll never reached the there you’re looking for.
Now in the second case, if you just find that you’d like to be more successful, then you’ll attack the issue from a healthier place, you’ll be more relaxed and you’ll go for it just because you like it and because you know you deserve it, not because of whatever fucked up reason that makes you feel you have to.
And there’ll not be a need to wait for the there because it will be right here, right now.
If it all makes sense until now, there’s a good news below.
The only skill that this change of mindset requires is awareness.
If you’re a SHOULD addict, great are the chances that you easily get anxious or angry. Now things will not change overnight, because these words are so ingrained in you—they are habits—that they’ll pop up by themselves as soon as you’re a little nervous.
The key is to stay aware and catch the SHOULDs when they arise, acknowledge them and consciously replace them by a more flexible statement about what you’d prefer.
“I should have gotten a raise by now! No, wait. I’d like to get a raise and it’d be definitely better if I had one. What can I do about it then?”
“I should have told her I don’t have time for that! Wait, let me rephrase this: actually it’d be better if I had told her but I haven’t. I will pay more attention next time. And I can still talk to her about this time later.”.
Just a bit of awareness.
It’s a practice, it definitely takes time to make it stick, but the more you do it and the more it becomes natural. It’ll do miracles. Words are very powerful indeed.
Another nice way to take better care of yourself.
Now I’m not going to say that you SHOULD do it, but I will strongly encourage you to.