Matthew was told while he was growing up that he must put on clean clothes every day. He feels it’s a waste of water (where he lives has been in a drought for several years), and he knows it’s costing him more because washing his clothes so often causes his electricity and water bills to be higher and he wears out his clothes sooner and has to replace them.
But that nagging inner critic starts to pound in Matthew’s mind every time he hangs his shirt up after wearing it for a day, even if it’s still fresh. “It’s dirty! Don’t wear it more than once! It must be washed!” The messages from his parents are so strong in his mind that if he doesn’t wash his shirt, he thinks to himself, “I’m such a slob because I didn’t wash this shirt after I wore it!”
“Shoulds” arise from expectations from others as well as yourself on what you think you should look, think, act, feel, and be like. When you feel like you don’t fit those requirements, you can feel frustrated, angry, or even hate towards yourself.
Not only do “shoulds” show up when you judge yourself, but this attitude can also express itself in expecting how others believe you should be, how others should be, and how the world should be.
The word “should” is one way to carry this attitude. Other words that lead to the same outlook are “need to,” “ought to,” “better,” and “have to.” All of these direct you toward a mindset of you or someone else being wrong.
Having all these expectations of how things should be can lead to unhappiness when you yourself and others inevitably don’t live up to these beliefs. Take a look at some common “shoulds” people often have and see if these go through your mind:
- I should be more successful.
- I need to be loving a parent at all times.
- I’d better be ready to help whenever anyone asks for assistance.
- I have to look good.
- I should be married.
- I ought to be happy all the time.
- Jerry should be a better friend.
- Margaret shouldn’t talk so much.
- The government shouldn’t be wasting money on this. They should fund that instead.
Holding onto all these “shoulds” will lead you into feeling bad about yourself or others when the world doesn’t live up to all the expectations of what should be done. Expectations like these are inflexible and must be followed at all costs. Because they’re so rigid in your mind, they lead to guilt in yourself for not living up to these expectations as well as the blaming of others when they don’t either.
“Shoulds” That Make Sense
Some “shoulds” have to do with cause and effect and make sense. They are helpful and will serve you well since they’re based on common sense, such as:
- I should stop at red lights and go on green lights.
- I should not harm anyone.
- I should be nice to my significant other to have a happy relationship.
- I have to study if I want to do well in this class.
You Carry Around Learned Behaviours
Many of the damaging “shoulds” are rooted in the things your parents taught you, such as what kind of job you should have, what kind of person you should marry, what defines success, what you should do with your spare time.
Now as an adult, you’re so used to following others’ “should” that you’ve not allowed yourself to be who and what you truly are. You have feelings of confusion. One part of you says you want to do something, and the other part says you should do something different.
To be self-confident, you must live by your own rules and do things that you truly care about. Listen to your inner voice and be brave enough to act accordingly in order to set yourself free from your own chains.
Start by looking at how you’ve thought you should be in these areas of your life:
- Living circumstances
- Social activities
- Political activities
- Religious and spiritual activities
- Free time
Now, consider where each “should” came from and if it’s really doing you any good. If it isn’t, then reverse or reframe it to something that suits your true inner self.
It’s Time to Break Free from Your “Shoulds”
Accept yourself. Whenever a “should” doesn’t reflect who you truly are and what you like to do, and instead makes you feel like you should be different, your true self is in danger of fading.
Stay in tune with who you truly are, and when a “should” questions that, ask yourself these questions:
- Who am I? Does this concept show that?
- What talents do I have that I want to grow? Does the “should” help them flourish?
- What are my physical and emotional needs, and do these “shoulds” help fulfil them?
- Is the source of this “should” valid?
Recognize and come to terms with the way things are. Things won’t always work out the way you wish they would, and you can’t change others to make it that way. Accept the way you actually feel about things. Be willing to be flexible, and allow for exceptions according to the situation.
Make your language goal orientated. Use “could”, “would prefer”, or “choose to” instead. Thinking this way will make you feel more confident and won’t make you feel guilty if you don’t accomplish your goal.
Another important thing to remember is to set limits on people who try to impose their “shoulds” on you. Be assertive and explain how you see things according to your true self.