Embracing the Shoulds
I think it was one of my professors in graduate school that said “stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself.” Hearing this was revolutionary for me, because at that time I hadn’t realized how much and how often I was “shoulding” on myself. It was a lot. Like, pretty much all the time. And often when I’d tell myself I should be doing XYZ, I didn’t end up actually doing the thing I was telling myself that I should do, I just felt guilty or ashamed for not being the way that I thought I should be.
Our Inner Critic has Good Intentions
Change cannot be forced. We can try to force or shame ourselves into doing a certain thing, or being a certain way, but in my experience, it isn’t very effective. The part of us that tries to guilt us into doing something always has good intentions. Most often it’s trying to keep us in line. It’s trying to manage our lives and make sure we keep on track, stay out of trouble, are socially acceptable, aren’t rejected, etc.
Our shoulds are trying to protect us. And our inner critic is afraid that if we stop being so hard on ourselves we might just sit around and eat bon-bons all day. Our inner critic doesn’t trust that we can be responsible adults without someone constantly chiding us. But the question becomes, are the shoulds really effective motivators? As I’ve already said, in my experience and in the experience of many people I’ve worked with, no.
Turning Toward the Inner Critic
So, what can we do instead? For starters, begin intentionally creating some distance between ourselves and our inner critic. This sounds simple, but it actually takes some practice to even become aware enough of our inner experience to hear the shoulds when they’re happening.
The following is a mindfulness practice for acquainting ourselves with our “shoulds”:
- Step 1) Practice noticing when we are should-ing on ourselves.
Again, this sounds simple, it’s not. We're usually so used to them we aren’t even aware they're there.
- Step 2) When we notice them, label the shoulds as “shoulds."
This can be verbally, out-loud, or just noting it internally in our head. The important part is that we begin acknowledging that something is happening inside of us and labeling it. This helps create distance between ourselves and the part of us that is should-ing. It helps us create enough space to gain some perspective. When we're fully identified with thoughts it’s impossible to question the validity of them or gain any knowledge from them. We also tend to believe our thoughts are true when we’re merged with them. But not all thoughts are true and creating some space from them allows us the power of discernment.
- Step 3) Get curious about what the shoulds are saying.
What is your inner critic saying you should do? How is it saying you should be? Do you know where this should came from? Write them down. Writing down our thoughts is creating another degree of separation. When we see them “out there” it’s much easier to begin acknowledging the fact that we’re not our thoughts, our thoughts are not us.
There is a wealth of useful information in our shoulds. They can reveal messages we’ve swallowed whole about how we should be–-are these messages true? Are they in our best interest? Are they relevant to our current circumstance?
Shoulds can also give us information about areas in life where we’re genuinely out of alignment with ourselves. If we’re constantly thinking things like, “I should really leave this relationship”... “I really shouldn’t let him talk to me like that”... “I should start sticking up for myself”... our shoulds could alert us to the fact that our outer life and choices are not currently in alignment with our wants/needs/values. In this way, shoulds and nagging feelings of guilt/anxiety can serve as an internal alarm system that something isn’t right. That we need to get clear on what exactly is out of alignment and what, if anything, we want to do about it.
Approaching our internal experience with an attitude of open-minded curiosity is the key to discerning what our shoulds mean in the context of our own unique life circumstances. Allowing compassionate space for our inner critic, getting curious about what it's saying--instead of trying to get it to shut up--deepens our self-awareness and calms our nervous system. And eventually, this kind of radical acceptance often leads to the inner critic quieting down and loosening it grip.
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