Have you ever noticed how much of your life is driven and dictated by the word (and feeling) of should? Most of us devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to doing and being what we think we should do and be. At the same time, we spend a surprisingly small amount of attention on what we actually want. The result is that we end up drained and exhausted, disconnected from our essential source of energy, authenticity, and vitality.
Of course, should is an important sentiment; we need shoulds in our life to function as human beings. We have to do certain things we don’t want to do—to stay alive, participate in society, hold a job, take care of our family, stay out of jail, maintain successful relationships, and essentially, create a life we might want.
We do a lot of things we should because we want to make people we care about happy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem I’m addressing here is not the fact that shoulds exist, or that we listen to and operate from them. It’s not a problem that we have to grow out of our 5-year-old self who believes that she should only have to do what she wants to do.
The problem created by the energy of should is the impact it has on our relationship with want. In short, should has the power to obliterate want. When we’re children, we’re deeply connected to (and vocal about) what we want. We have no difficulty identifying and expressing our wants. But over time, through cultural conditioning, a sense of duty, family experience, conscientiousness, and a host of other factors, we lose that connection and end up living in what can only be described as a constant state of should, and shoulding ourselves into exhaustion.
In an effort to be seen as good—good parents, good partners, good friends, good workers, good daughters and sons, and just plain good people—we learn to function with one gauge above all others. Should becomes our way to be loved. As grown-ups, we operate out of a sense of should such that we stop asking ourselves, feeling connected to, expressing, or acting from what we want. We end up disconnected from ourselves, from our vitality, and authenticity; we end up untethered from what we really want and need. We end up fundamentally depleted.
The first step in recovering from your shoulding habit is to become aware of it. Awareness is the kryptonite to acting it out. Start by simply recognizing the voice of should in your mind, learning to hear it as its own distinct entity. Sometimes the voice of should is clear and obvious and sometimes it’s more like a wallpaper sentiment papering the background of your consciousness. What’s important is that you become aware of how and when your inner should shows up—that you bring it out of the shadows and into the light.
Simultaneously start inviting want into the picture. When you’re making a choice or considering an action, ask yourself: Is this choice coming from should or want? Do I think I should do it or do I actually want to do it? Why do I feel I should do this? What makes this a should?
And furthermore, what am I afraid will happen if I follow what I want in this case?
Ask yourself, too, what is the want behind this should, if there is one? For example, if you are shoulding yourself to go to the gym at 5:30 a.m., perhaps the deeper want is to be able to go hiking without running out of breath, or maybe just to keep yourself healthy so that you can stick around for your child. The should surrounding the gym is a means, or so you think, to the deeper want for health that sits below it. Ask yourself, “Do I still believe that this is the best way to take care of the deeper want in this case?”
Just becoming conscious of these two different experiences, want and should, and the different feelings, assumptions, and experiences associated with each, and getting clear on what’s actually true for you is a profound practice in and of itself.
Know too that when you are acting from should, you may well be discarding and ignoring what you want. Regardless of whether you can give yourself what you want at the moment, perhaps there is a way to give yourself some of what you want while still accomplishing your should.
Perhaps there’s room for balance; maybe should can be a slice of the pie but not the whole pie. Maybe, for example, a couple of days each week, you can take a walk with a friend instead of hitting the treadmill before work. Maybe it’s not either/or, but rather both/and.
Breaking your shoulding habit, ultimately, means changing your relationship with the feeling and experience of should altogether. If you’re on your way to lunch with your angry and dismissive mother-in-law, a choice that’s coming entirely from should, rather than shaming and blaming yourself for not wanting to do it, rather than telling yourself how bad a daughter-in-law and how selfish a person you are for not wanting to do it, you can instead choose the path of kindness—for yourself.
You can acknowledge with self-compassion the fact that spending time with this difficult person is hard and that there’s a reason you don’t want to do it. And yet, that you’re choosing to do it anyway, which is courageous. And furthermore, that this hard thing you’re about to do aligns with your deeper values—your love for this woman’s son, and for her too in her suffering.
In allowing your authentic truth, and acknowledging that you don’t want to do it (why would you?) but that you’re doing it anyway because it matters to you, you are actually being kind to yourself. You are honoring your truth, allowing the experience to be hard and unwanted, which then keeps you connected to your own heart and on your own side. The lunch with your mother-in-law and with yourself is then different: kinder and more bearable.
But if you really want to break out of the cage of should, you have to be willing to get to know and respect your own wanting. Ask yourself: What would it mean to start living your life from want? What would you risk if you were to let want guide your life?
At the end of the day, you have to be willing to risk whatever that is. But if you do and if you are, your life will bloom in a radically new way. Instead of feeling exhausted and depleted, you will be rejuvenated and revitalized, in sync with the life force that is your own wanting.