I decided to break this topic into 2 parts that I will cover over the next 2 weeks in my Mindful Monday Series. This being Part I: What are the Dangerous Shoulds in Your Life? & Part II: Should-ing vs. Chronic Illness & Pain.
What is with the “Shoulds” anyway?
Lets face it, as you are sitting here reading this article, there is a voice in the back of your head reminding you of all the shoulds that you can be doing right now! (Please don’t leave yet!) In fact we say it every day. Sometimes out loud to others around us, our family and sometimes to ourselves. You have heard the word over and over and over. Should, should, should. This word tends to be a staple in our daily vocabulary. We don’t even think twice about the should-ing that is happening in our own lives. For those of you who tuned in every week to HBO’s Sex & The City, Carrie debated if should was a disease that was plaguing women. At a glance it seems like a harmless word but its effects are misleading and often times fill us with guilt or dissatisfaction.
It started in the beginning.
For many of us, we have lived in a “should world” our whole lives. Our parents, our teachers, our Sunday school lessons and our peers have showered us with shoulds since we were old enough to remember. Sure, they are meant to be used a “guide” and to mold our character into a moral being but sometimes they go a little to far. They step beyond the boundaries of character building and making wise decisions and begin an ongoing inner dialogue of shaming ourselves into something that we may not be.
Often times, shoulds are given as advice to someone. Other times they are a gentle push to which milestone we “should” be collecting in our lives. The shoulds that wrap themselves around us are a difficult battle and create barriers to our own individual success. We are pulled in a different direction than where we truly want to be.
Shoulds leave us with a feeling that we haven’t done enough or we aren’t good enough. They leave us feeling that we “should” be doing more in one or more areas of our life.
Drowning in a sea of Shoulds: My own Story
I realized my strong dislike for the word as soon as I stepped off the beaten path. Everyone had a “should” for me. I was 26 and single. I had also just finished my Master’s degree in Social Work and was working in a great job. I thought everything was perfect but as the days turned into months, I began to feel like I was drowning in a sea of shoulds.
Looking back it seems ridiculous that no one patted me on the back and said “good for you!” “Way to go”, “You are living a great life”. Instead they were concerned and felt the need to remind me of how we “should” proceed in our lives.
“Oh, you aren’t married yet? Well you must have a boyfriend? No? You SHOULD really start looking.”
“You should really buy a house.”
“Now that you are working, you should buy a new car! You deserve it!”
“You should really be saving a lot of your money for retirement”
“You should be doing more volunteer work in the community”
“You should get married before you are 30.”
“You should freeze your eggs.”
“You should, You should, You should.”
I, of course was singing a different tune. I was proud of my accomplishments. I had put myself through college & grad school, working 30 hours a week. I pursued my dream and made it happen. Wasn’t that enough? I also wanted to live somewhere tropical and continue working in social work. So I did what any single, rebellious 26 year old does… I moved to the Caribbean with my dog. The Caribbean was a place where the shoulds really didn’t matter. People didn’t ask about what neighborhood you lived in, what you drove, what your profession was, what you wore or even how old you were. (I’ve always hated the question of ‘how old are you?” It seemed to be a way for the person asking to gage how well you were doing in your life). In the Caribbean what mattered was your attitude and your sense of adventure. It seemed easier. No one felt the need to give you advice in should terms.
We honestly didn’t give a should because it didn’t matter if someone was single, had children, drove a nice care or had a trust fund. Those things didn’t portray that they were living a full or happy life!
I often get the question, well what made you move to the Caribbean? I did it because I made a decision based on what I wanted. I choose to do something that made my heart happy. The life that I wanted for myself didn’t fall in line with the marriage, 2.5 kids and white picket fence. I pushed the society shoulds aside, listened to my gut and followed my heart. I never, not even once regretted that decision. In fact, I am so happy that I lived a full 7 years in a place that most people wait till they retire to experience. If I had waited until retirement, I would have been too chronically ill to enjoy the perks of living on an island.
Danger of Should-ing yourself
The power of shoulds take us out of the moment that we are in and push an agenda for the future. You are no longer the person who is having dinner with friends, appreciating the beauty of the scenery around you on your commute home or enjoying an activity with loved ones. You are thinking about the future instead committing yourself to this moment. Other times we open a door of shoulds is when we relax. Prop your feet on the couch, take a sip of wine and here comes a parade of Shoulds. “I should be studying”, “I should be cleaning the house”, “I should be checking my work email one more time before bed”, “I should just dust off the coffee table”. So often times, we get up and carry on through our list of shoulds instead of listening to what we really want and need.
Another time we should all over ourselves is when we try to meditate. This tends to be the #1 reason why people don’t like to meditate. As the mind is settling down into the quiet, our minds suddenly have the urge to do something. “ I should be doing dishes”, “ I should make this for dinner”. This should seems pretty innocent right? But what happens when the shoulds become more serious, more weighted and creep into our foundation of the person we are? Submitting to society’s shoulds can be a dangerous gamble with your life. It can alter what you want to be doing, who you want to be dating, if you want children or not, putting yourself in debt, and putting what really is important to you on the sidelines.
These Shoulds can sometimes magnify and before we know it we are never satisfied. Nothing is ever enough because a should has taken us another route, down a different path and sometimes this can hold a heavy weight over us. It can even manifest into a belief that now affects a person’s pereption of themselves and their sense of worth.
“I should be more involved with my kid’s school,” an overworked, stressed mom thinks. “ I should be taking on more projects and bringing home more money,” a father who is already gone 80 hours of the week. “I should eat less,” a self conscious teen thinks. “I should be like all those other moms on facebook. I must be a bad mother.”.
Reality vs. Social Media Image
With social media invading our personal lives, it brings a certain perspective to the table. Friends post about their adventures, babies, significant others, their homes & material possessions. Social media portrays a lens of perfection and unrealistic expectations. Perfect filtered selfies, new mom’s super human qualities of balancing her family & showering and lavish vacations of a co-worker that make you envious and dissatisfied of your own life.
Minfulness & Shoulds
When I moved back to the states after 7 should-less years, I was in awe of how it was abundant it was in our culture. I was shocked that people had no problem telling what I should and should not be doing. And then the worst thing happened. The shoulds in my own head got louder and louder.
I began to gauge my success to others. I still wasn’t married at 35, so that meant I didn’t have a fulfilled life according to most. The should of buying a home, getting a new SUV, fashion and the size of my body became overwhelming.
When I took time to pursue an 8 week class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, I found myself aware of this inner dialogue and battles that I was having with myself. My teacher, Shell Fisher warned us about “shoulding all over ourselves” and the phrase stuck with me.
I began to experiment with leaving the shoulds to the side and enjoy the moment I was in. Just as it was. Should Free.
But of course it wasn’t that easy. My new diagnosis of a painful disease was changing my physical abilities and my shoulds exploded. As I sat in stillness, I began to listen to the things I was telling myself. I found some very unhelpful beliefs at the core of my should-ing. Beliefs that were filled with self hate and unrealistic expectations. The shoulds and the beliefs were unfair to myself and I realized I would never expect those shoulds from someone in a similar position as myself, so why did it make it okay to expect it from myself? It wasn’t okay. I had to get rid of these self-sabatoging beliefs and adopt a healthier view of what I truly wanted my life and job would look like.
Creating Awareness & listening to YOUR true self
Through a practice of Mindfulness and Meditation, you become aware of the shoulds that are dictating, influencing and battling your reality. Here are a few mindful steps to try this week.
- Turn off social media for the evening and sit quietly by yourself, what are your shoulds telling you?
- Acknowledge the should and let it rest on the side without judging it.
- Notice what else is there. What belief is lying under the inner dialogue of your shoulds?
- Are you acting on the should because you feel guilty or does it help you meet a realistic goal?
- What beliefs are helping you? What beliefs are not helping?
Finally, are there some shoulds that you can let go?
As we let go of some of the shoulds and their unhelpful beliefs, we may feel that a weight has been lifted from our shoulders. We may enjoy a glass of wine with a friend & being in the moment instead of being distracted by creating a list of shoulds. In the end, simply noticing unhelpful should-ing gives us the opportunity to connect with our true selves & begin an honest journey towards our ambitions & dreams.
Please join me next Monday as I examine the battle of Shoulding vs. Chronic Illness & Pain.
Much Metta (Loving Kindness),
For more information on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction & Meditation Workshops in The Shenandoah Valley, please visit: Shell Fischer’s website