Of all the words that exist in our language, “should” may be the one that creates the most suffering. Every aspect of our life is affected and infiltrated by it: I “should” be, he/she “should” be, my life “should” be, this moment “should” be… Sometimes we utter our “shoulds” out loud, sometimes we think them consciously, and sometimes they are so subtle as to escape even our own awareness, perhaps presenting as just a background dissatisfaction or despair, something not right with the way it is. At the core is always the same message: This [fill in the blank] “should” be different—should be something other than what it is.
Lesley (all names are changed here) wakes up in her apartment in the city every weekend to a raging “should” assault: I “should” be doing something fabulous this weekend, I “should” be traveling and experiencing new and interesting things. I “should” be living a different life than the one I’m living.
John suffers mostly with the “should” of the other. While his wife has been exhibiting the same insensitive behavior for the last decade, which is extremely frustrating and painful for him, his internal dialogue remains the same: She “should” be more sensitive to his needs, she “should” care about the fact that her behavior upsets him.
Just now, as I was putting the finishing touches on this blog, I slipped out to meet a friend. “I should have gotten a nice day,” she exclaimed as we dodged the puddles on the way to lunch. It was her first day off in weeks and she felt deprived of the sunny day she “should” have gotten. Her experience was not what it “should” be, and that felt bad.
The “should” thought arises (generally) when we don’t like or want what is happening. While the energy and intention of “should” is to point us towards the thing that we want, and thus to alleviate suffering, the effect is actually to create more suffering than we already felt. When we add “should” to a reality we already don’t like, we end up with the same unwanted reality we started with, but on top of it, we have an emotional battle against what is actually happening.
Most of the time, the reality we think we don’t want would actually be bearable if we just stopped struggling against it. It might even contain elements that we could enjoy, if we were to let ourselves experience it. What is not bearable, however, is the belief that we are being cheated out of a reality that we were supposed to get. The greatest suffering comes from our fight against reality—not our reality itself.
Giving up our “should” narrative is very challenging, in part because we are conditioned to believe that if we give up the fight with a reality we don’t want, we will be surrendering and agreeing to that unwanted reality, and to it continuing forever. Shifting the focus from what “should” be to what is, otherwise known as acceptance or allowing, is, as we’ve come to understand it, code for giving up and giving in to a life we don’t want. Acceptance or allowing reality is seen as passivity. This, however, is a radical misunderstanding of what acceptance and allowing actually mean.
What we are giving up when we stop fixating on what “should” be is just one thing—the fight with the fact that what is, is. Accepting that what is, is, has nothing to do with our actions, our intention to change it, or our approval of it. Acceptance and allowing simply means relaxing our opposition to the fact that what is happening on the inside and outside of us is actually happening.
For my friend to accept that it is raining, and to stop imagining that it “should” be the way she wants it, would not be to agree to like the rain, nor would it mean she ought to leave her umbrella at home. To give up her “shoulds” would mean only dropping her anger and resentment against reality, the blaming of the sky for doing what it is doing, the insistence that she was supposed to get something else from her day off. It would leave her only with the rain itself to deal with, which is far more manageable and less painful than her feelings of being punished by a weather system utterly uninterested in her quarrel with it.
If Lesley were able to allow the fact that she is in the city in the summer, that this is her life right now, she would be giving herself the gift of the present moment. Her reality might be a little hot or loud, or a little lonely if she’s alone, but it would go on without the intense suffering that comes with the narrative of what her life “should” be. Instead of the absence of the weekend she’s missing out on, she would experience the presence of the weekend she’s living in, a presence out of which she might create something she actually wants. Further, from her apartment in the city, she could still book a trip to the beach or a visit to friends in the country. Anything is possible when we start from the place we actually are, while nothing can happen from the illusion of where we “should” be.
One client discovered that when she dropped her painful and overwhelming “I should have a more fabulous life” narrative, she in fact only had one micro-moment at a time to contend with. Without the “shoulds,” and with just this moment, now, to address, her life felt quite bearable and even potentially interesting. She realized that when she didn’t have to live the “story” of her life, she could enter her actual life — go to the movies or take a walk, listen to a piece of music or sit on a bench and feel the sunshine. Instead of trying to figure out what she “should” be doing in her fabulous imaginary life, she started to discover what she actually felt like doing right now — in her real life. She was like a teenager with her first set of car keys, realizing that from here, from the ground she was standing on, she could go anywhere or create anything she wanted.
When we stop obsessing over what “should” be and shift into acknowledging what is, we discover that, as opposed to becoming more passive, our solutions to a reality we don’t want actually become more creative and forward-moving. When we are willing to look at and feel what is actually true, solutions appear that are unexpected and fresh. Solutions that arise out of the direct experience of the truth, of what’s really happening, contain an energy and inarguable-ness that is far more powerful than anything that comes from an anxiety and urgency to get away from reality.
For years, I was in a relationship with someone whom I thought “should” be different. I remained in that relationship, unhappy but relentlessly engaged with my “shoulds.” At some point, however, having struggled and suffered with reality long enough (with no budge on reality’s part) I decided to drop my stories about the way it “should” be. I was bone tired and weary from my unhappiness and his “wrongness,” and, perhaps more to the point, from my fight against that unhappiness and that “wrongness.” Instead, I started looking at who he actually was instead of obsessing about who I wanted him to be. I started feeling the way I actually felt in the relationship instead of trying to feel a better way. When I did, instead of anger and frustration over what was, I sensed a deeper truth, and with it a calm clarity. As heartbreaking as the truth was, it was without any of the confusion and frustration that had plagued me throughout the years of “shoulds.” It was unavoidable: I didn’t want to and couldn’t be with this partner any longer.
This was the truth that my “shoulds” had kept me from having to face. And indeed, “shoulds” allow us to live in a state of denial, to avoid the pain of the truth, and what we might need to do about that truth. We believe that accepting reality creates passivity and inaction but in fact, allowing reality, as it is, actually creates the ground for powerful action and inarguable change.
What if we were to approach our life with the attitude that this IS our life: It’s not supposed to be another life. It might one day be different, but right now it’s this life.
The irony is that whether or not we “allow” reality to be as it is, reality is still the way it is. “Allowing” reality to be as it is is really just an idea cooked up in our heads. Reality doesn’t go away because we stop allowing it any more than it comes into being when we do allow it; our resistance has no effect on reality itself; it affects only our own well being. Reality always wins. We can make our lives a whole lot more peaceful by renouncing the delusion that fighting with the truth will make it any less true.
Each time you hear yourself saying or thinking what “should” be happening, flip it around and ask the question, What is happening? Drop your fight with reality, your narrative about what “should” be, and you’ll discover that reality, unburdened by your opposition, is a lot different than you think. The surest way to find peace is not to win the war, but to stop the fighting.
Copyright 2015 Nancy Colier