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Why 'shoulding' yourself is messy and unhelpful

How often do you use the word 'should'?

Do you even notice?


I have to admit that I have a real dislike for the word ‘should’. Whenever I hear myself using it, my shoulders tighten and my skin crawls. I wince. I hear it and it hurts. Why? Its just a word, right?


Yes, maybe it is just a word but it carries so much with it. The word ‘should’ implies that there is a right way of being and if we do not meet this then we are wrong, flawed, inadequate in some way. It suggests that to be of worth, there is a standard we need to meet and failure to meet that prescribed standard means our worth is somehow diminished.


Let me back up and look at the concept of worth for a minute. As humans we are somehow programmed to desire feeling valued, and be seen in a positive light. Whether this is from our time as cave people where those who benefitted the tribe were honoured whilst other members of the tribe had to go out and risk their lives hunting sabre-tooth tigers, I don’t know, but it is something that humans have chased for thousands of years. Sometimes leading to people doing great things which have benefitted humanity, and sometimes quite the reverse.


Through this process, comparisons are made between self and those who are viewed to be successful, influential or having done something of worth and these actions, whether it be singing, the way someone looks, academic success and so on, become integrated into what we as a society deem valuable – it has worth. We become aware of these things as we grow up, whether it be through what our parents do and say, what we see in the media or what brings benefits, we have no reason to doubt their validity and so we take in the message that for us to be of worth, this is what we ‘should’ be.

The word ‘should’ is therefore a huge neon flashing sign which points to the expectations and conditions put upon our worth as individuals. Urghh, shudder.


It suggests that being yourself, being different, striving to meet your own needs and goals is wrong and un-valuable. Therefore, when we attempt to do any of these things, we experience shame, guilt – generally uncomfortable feelings which are pretty horrid to be stuck in so we avoid. We avoid noticing our wants, needs, individual dreams, we push the stirrings of ‘self’ down, and we look at others and compare. We look at what others have and how they are valued and we chase that, thinking that if we achieve what ‘they’ have then we will be of worth, we will then be happy.


But the truth is, if we are always chasing what someone else has, or what we ‘should’ have/do/be, then we will only ever achieve someone else’s past achievement. By the time we reach what they had, they have moved on and we again find ourselves lacking, with something else we ‘should’ have or ‘should’ be doing – we are never good enough. This leads to a corrosion of self-worth, sadness, shame and all those other messy and unpleasant feelings.


Furthermore, when chasing someone else’s expectations or what we ‘should’ be and it doesn’t lead to use feeling great, full of joy or worthy (because they aren’t the things that actually fill us with joy or give our life colour) we become a contestant in the self-deprecating game, picking up our metaphorical stick (mine developed to include nails and barbed wire for quite some time) and beating ourselves up with it – all the time telling ourselves ‘but I should be happy now, I’ve achieved what I was meant too – I should be fine!’

Never has a word brought such a downer to someone’s mood!


The irony is, that we also absorb messages about feelings too – how we shouldn’t complain, how we should be strong, how we shouldn’t cry or burden others with our feelings, because, well, there is always someone worse off than you – well, pardon my French but that is bolloxs!!


There is no limit on sadness or feelings in the world. No quotient that says the worlds population has reached the limit for sadness or feeling crappy today so sorry, you have to suck it in and get by. Sad is sad and you are entitled to feel it if that’s how you feel. Just because one person is experiencing sadness for something, does not diminish your felt sadness for something else. You are different people with different experiences and different wounds – your sadness, or any other feeling, whether it be stress, frustration, anxiety, terror or vulnerability is incomparable. There is no ‘should’ when it comes to feelings and experiencing – I’ll do me, you do you and neither of us are wrong.


So what can you do to stop ‘shoulding’ over yourself?


Well, a good first step is noticing when you use the word ‘should’ – I will offer a health warning here, it can become pretty cringey when you do this. When you start catching yourself saying it and think ‘oohh, there’s another expectation I’ve taken in, where did that come from?’ You notice it more and more; you notice it in other people and start wondering what pressures have been exerted on them to chase their ‘shoulds’ and soon it becomes apparent that it isn’t just you ‘shoulding’ yourself – everyone is doing it!

But back to you. Notice when you ‘should yourself’. You could even note down your ‘shouldings’ – maybe draw an outline of a person (it doesn’t have to be a Picasso or anything – I do not want to add to your 'shouldings' with expectations of great pieces of artwork, writing a list is fine) and inside it write down all your ‘shoulds’.


For example, growing up my shoulds included:

· I should get top grades

· I should go to university

· I should be into make-up and girly stuff

· I should have a boyfriend

· I should be thin

· I should be pretty

· I should get married and have children

· I should please others and put their needs first

· I should not show I am struggling – I should not be weak

· I should be perfect

Etcetera, etcetera - do any of these feel familiar?


Once you have written out your 'shouldings', highlight which ones have become conditions of your worth, that is to say – when you don’t achieve them you feel less than, not good enough, a failure – it may surprise you how many shoulds (remembering these are absorbed from other people and not reflective of your own internal valuing) dictate your worth, and until now, what your worth has been based on.


The great news is, in gaining this self-awareness – you now have choice!! Which shoulds represent your true valuing system, that is truly important to you- as an individual – that makes you worthy in your eyes and which are imposed on you from others? Which do you want to keep, as let’s not forget, shoulds can be motivating (it’s when we are being motivated by other peoples expectations rather than our own it becomes harmful and messy) and which do you want to let go of? Which cause you stress and anxiety and which bring you comfort and value?


I will end here and offer one ‘should’ that maybe is ok –

‘You should get to know yourself and see your inherent worth – for you are truly amazing!’

Take Care


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