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How to let go of 'should' and find out what you really want

For many of us, our life is dominated by never-ending lists of shoulds. These could come in the form of all those everyday tasks that we expect of ourselves, to the big shoulds - those that determine the path of our lives. These might be things like: I should own my own home by now, I should be married, I should get it right all the time. Most of it amounts to the same thing: I should be perfect.

Where do shoulds come from?

Shoulds are messages that we have taken in from outside. Very often we tend to internalise them, so they feel like our own. Shoulds come from our families and our friends, and reflect those things that are highly valued or considered to represent success in life. Shoulds do more than reflect our own worldview, they are a mirror to our culture. Our culture bombards us with messages about what our lives should look like, what success should look like, what our bodies should look like, what good parenting should look like. Shoulds tend to represent a set of cultural norms and ideals around which we organise our lives and experiences.

Is there an upside to should?

Shoulds aren’t all bad. It might be helpful to think of ‘nurturing’ shoulds and ‘demanding’ shoulds. Nurturing shoulds might be things like: I really should quit smoking. This is a should, but it’s one that is serving our best interests and has a supportive tone.

Shoulds also help us to get along in life. Remember being a little kid, impulsively following our instincts, rampaging around, throwing ourselves to the ground for a supermarket tantrum when we didn’t get our own way? Imposing some shoulds is what our parents had to do to get us to behave within some boundaries. Shoulds (and should nots) were necessary for us to socialise and be pleasant to be around and form relationships. Let’s face it, we live in a world with other people! We are social beings and it doesn’t serve us to isolate ourselves by doing exactly what we please all the time with no heed for the consequences for others. A degree of conformity to moral and ethical norms keeps us included in the big ‘we’ and gives a sense of connection and belonging.

It’s also so seductive to follow the should path. It’s all laid out for us! If we successfully navigate all the milestones we’re supposed to achieve in the timeframe we’re supposed to achieve them we get to feel like we are doing life right. We are living up to the ideals our families and friends and culture sets for us. Yay!

The downside….

However, what this amounts to is living a low-risk kind of life. We are following a pathway that is well trodden and prescribed for us. It can be shocking to us when we follow the path, achieve all the milestones and then find we are unhappy or unfulfilled in some way, that we have neglected ourselves in the process of conforming to an external ideal.

Or, alternatively, we discover that our actual life is not following the script of this ideal life we’re supposed to be living. If our life does not fit the script we can feel like a failure, like there is something wrong with us. If we take the time to explore this, we may even find that the things we don’t have, we don’t actually want. We just think we want them because we’re told to want them and we feel bad because we feel like a failure for not having them, rather than feeling bad about actually not having them because somewhere deep down we never wanted them – talk that one over with a therapist!

Both of these problems fundamentally follow from living a life that is prescribed by others. Shoulds become a prison, but one where the door is actually unlocked. We just haven’t noticed that we have the option to escape. A belief system of oughts and shoulds can disconnect us from what we truly want. We go straight to the should and bypass the want, the part where we connect with ourselves, where there is space for something different, for creativity and choice.

While a degree of should is inevitable and healthy, there are times when our lives can become dominated by should. We may not even know it. If we uncritically accept what we are told we must do with our lives, we may confuse should with want. We are told to want certain things and we do. It all gets a bit blurry when we try to disentangle what we really want to do from what we should do, but it’s important to know the difference!

So how do we stop should dominating our lives?

Here are seven steps to shift out of should!

1. Should is just a story

Instead of thinking of all the shoulds that our culture imposes upon us as truths, shift to seeing them as stories. Narrative approaches within psychology help us think about ourselves in our wider context. From this perspective, our shoulds (from what we should wear, how we should look, the ideal body shape, the ideal lifestyle, the way to raise kids, the things we should achieve by a certain stage in our lives) are not hard facts. They are not truths in any objective sense. They are simply stories, which are culturally and historically located.

These stories or ideals for our lives can feel like truths because they are perpetuated and supported and dominant in our culture right now. Often stories that sit outside the cultural norm are silenced as people feel unable to articulate them because they think they represent a flaw or failing.

When we realise that our shoulds are simply plot lines that our culture has made available to us, we realise that we don’t have to follow the script. There are other scripts, we can even write our own! The beauty of doing something outside of the dominant narrative is that we get to then give voice to alternatives. These become plot lines for others to draw from. Choices open up for ourselves and others.

2. Let go of judgement

When we start to see shoulds as stories, they loosen their grip. They stop being representative of the ‘right’ way and become instead one way, one story of how to live. We don’t need to decide that any way is wrong or right, only work out if it is wrong or right for us. One of the powers of should is it creates judgement on those who are operating outside of convention. The fear of judgement and having failed in the eyes of society is part of what keeps us on the should path. If we can let go of the idea that there is a right way then there is no judgement of any path, no hierarchy of who is getting it right. There is only getting it right for ourselves – and letting others get it right for themselves. It means we can be in alignment with our own values, whilst also recognising that they might not be the same as everyone else’s. You may value freedom whilst someone else may value security. You may value time where someone else may value money. Letting go of judgement means not judging ourselves or others for the life chosen.

3. So what do you want?

Sometimes it’s hard to know if we want something because we truly want it, or because we should want it. Try a simple exercise to figure out the wants from the shoulds. Imagine for a minute that there is no judgement. That whatever you do is equally valued and approved of by society, your parents, your friends or whoever’s approval you most desire. That success hinges only on whether you are personally pleased with your choices, that others’ approval merely reflects your own. How would you want your life to look? Take a few minutes to visualise your ideal day, your lifestyle, how you spend your time and how you contribute to the world.

Sometimes we are so caught in should we don’t even know what to want without being told. If that’s the case for you just start a process of tuning into your body. Notice your energy, when it fires up, when it dies down, what you move towards, what you move away from.

4. Own your choice

One of the aspects of should that can be both appealing and problematic is that it locates responsibility outside of ourselves. Sometimes it’s quite nice to absolve ourselves of responsibility, then we’re not to blame if things go wrong! But it’s also disempowering. When we take responsibility for our own lives, recognise the part we play in our failures and successes, we have power. We can change ourselves – our attitudes, behaviours, thoughts - and we can change our experiences.

One way of making this shift is by changing our language. Talking the language of should tends to put us in an inner battle that sounds like a parent-child interaction (1). We tend to experience shoulds as parental finger-wagging, being told off and told what to do. We might comply or we might rebel, but either way, it puts us in a child-like state of receiving directives from some external authority, even if it’s one that is disguised as our own voice in our own head.

However, when we shift away from should, towards I want or I could or I choose, something different happens. Rather than embodying the sulky child who has been told to stop playing and get on with homework, we can operate from our here-and-now adult selves. This is particularly useful when our shoulds and our wants are the same. For example you should get healthy and you also want to be healthy (admittedly, not every minute of the day). To really act on that, you’re better off owning it as a want rather than a should.

Try this short experiment. Think of one thing you should do. For example: I really should go to the gym later. Say it over and over. Notice what happens to your energy and your motivation. Now change your language. Say instead, I really want to go to the gym later. Say it over and over. Again, notice your energy and motivation. Try it again with different words, like could or choose to. These are small uses of language but give us a sense of power in our lives. Energetically, when we do something because we should, our motivation drops. It’s as though we are being told to do it. When we want to do something our motivation rises. Drop ‘should’ from your language and see what happens.

5. Notice your resistance

We are often caught in should because we fear the consequences of doing something different (2). We might fail. We might be humiliated. We might look stupid or foolish for even trying. We might be reckless and make mistakes financially that are costly in the long run…the list of what could go wrong is endless!

Ask yourself, what’s stopping you doing that thing you really want to do? What is your worst fear? Once you’ve identified it, ask yourself:

Can I live with it?

We might find that even though we can identify what we want to do, that we can see the shoulds that are getting in the way and want to let go of them …something holds us back. Be curious: What is that thought process or feeling? Perhaps we are afraid of failure, perhaps following our dream seems like too much effort, perhaps we are comfortable in the life we have and don’t want the discomfort of change and something new.

Stepping out of our comfort zone can put us in contact with emotions that are difficult for us. This is often rooted in childhood and the emotional environment we were brought up in and it can be useful to talk to a counsellor or therapist to work through it if this is particularly challenging. It’s often the case that we move away from and avoid emotional states that are uncomfortable. It’s normal. But change comes from moving towards them. Only by spending more time in the discomfort can we learn to tolerate it and manage it. It’s not about going in at the deep end and being overwhelmed, but instead moving to the edges of what we’re comfortable with, spending some time there and expanding our tolerance for different emotional states (3). It takes some courage to go to the places that are emotionally difficult for us. if you haven’t already, now might be a good time to sign up to the brave challenge to get into a daily practice of moving towards discomfort!

6. Change the conversation

If should problems are rooted in not having achieved certain life goals at certain points (4) then we can find our lives being talked about like a problem to solve! We might be bombarded with questions about our love life or plans to have a family. We may find ourselves justifying, explaining, and defending why we are not living the life we should be, all the while feeling like a failure or like there’s something wrong with us. This doesn’t just happen because our friends and family are insensitive and mean. Our culture tells us that these are problems to be solved and we may even speak in those terms ourselves. But talking in these terms doesn’t help us. In fact, it can make us more stuck in should, as we see the only way out of feeling like a failure is to hurry up and do all those things we should have done already! Panic sets it.

By remembering that should is just a story, that there’s no one right way to live, we can shift away from this. A powerful way to do this is simply to change the conversation. Stop talking from a problem narrative and other people will too. Imagine next time someone says, ‘So, how’s your love life, met anyone special?’ replying excitedly, ‘No! It’s great right now, I’m really loving my freedom.’ See what happens.

It’s often the case that people like other people to confirm the rightness of their own choices by doing the same thing. If you decide to ditch the corporate ladder those friends on the corporate ladder are quietly threatened. What if you got it right? What if they got it wrong? Those who are busy shoulding feel a lot better if you are shoulding too. Resist.

7. Do should differently

We need some should in our life. The nurturing shoulds can keep us connected to what is in our own best interests. If we can hold those shoulds as wants, we’re even more likely to benefit from them. Shoulds in terms of promoting conformity can also serve a purpose. We are social beings, a sense of belonging and connection to our culture is both necessary and valuable. It’s neither desirable nor achievable to truly not care what others think or to step outside of our culture. However, what we can do is separate our desires from our shoulds, distinguish cultural stories from truths, and in doing so open up possibility and choice.

We can hold our shoulds lightly, create space between should and judgement, between should and action. In that space we can find some freedom and movement and creativity. We can connect back to ourselves and what we want. We can enter into a dialogue between the self and the culture in which we find ourselves and find a place that fits for us.

If you would find it useful to have support with this, online therapy or counselling can help you understand the origin of your shoulds and learn how to let go of the ones that don't serve us anymore.

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