You should be further ahead than you are right now.
You should dress better and weigh less.
You should suck it up and smile more.
You must make some changes if you ever expect to be happy.
How did it feel to read those statements?
Did you feel your body tense? Did a frisson of tension, or agreement, or even helplessness run through you?
Don’t worry. You are not alone. Too many of us really don’t know how to think any other way.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
First of all, the should and must barrage we impose on ourselves is a form of cognitive distortion. Therefore, the way we see and think about ourselves seems true but is not really accurate or helpful at all. Thus, we make the mistake of thinking we must box ourselves into doing what we perceive is right and best, rather than focus on our needs and wants.
What happens when we indulge this distortion?
Life gets hard and inflexible. All the shoulds and musts we carry around have a way of making us forget we have valid choices. In fact, you might even tell yourself you shouldn’t even want to exercise them.
Think about it, how many times have you chastised yourself or criticized your own actions or desires, reminding yourself of the multiple things you should do, say, think or become?
More specifically, how many times have you believed that:
- good people should be focused on predetermined activities, parameters, and goals for happiness and contentment?
- successful people must rise through work and society. They should be smart, funny, sexy, loving, well-liked, and so on and so on?
- moral people must be pure-minded or like-minded and increasingly perfect as the years go by?
How many times have you felt you failed to meet your own list of internal demands?
Unfortunately, should and must can take over pretty easily if we aren’t aware. To break free, intentional exploration of our thoughts, wants, and relationships is important. Consider the following ideas for relief:
1. Shed your “Shoulds” and Learn to Demand Less:
Run your list of shoulds mentally. Right now.
What should you be? Thinner, healthier, younger, friendlier, smarter, funnier…? Basically, you “should” be a better version of yourself, right? Sadly, you tell yourself all the time that you’re just not getting life right. That you’re just not good enough.
To combat such thoughts, empower yourself. Notice should and must when they come up. Practice mindful awareness. In addition, intentionally respond to the demands you place on yourself with self-compassion.
Refuse to be bossed around by musts. Get curious. Ask yourself:
- “Is this something I really want?
- “Why do I believe I should do this?”
- “What am I afraid might happen if I go my own way?”
You may find that the answers to your questions uncover some unexplored thoughts and emotions. Thus, you may be inspired to change your response. Or you may simply feel more in tune with your wants and motivations.
2. Explore your “Musts” in an effort to get real with yourself and your world
The primary problem with should and must?
That the things we should do, must have, and ought to become just don’t have much to do with who we really are.
“Shoulding” your life and relationships limits and polices your experiences unfairly. And, consequently, leaves you with few assurances that you are fine the way you are.
However, with the help of a compassionate counselor, you can learn to identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts and behavior. Time with a good listener is extremely beneficial as you get know your authentic self and take action.
You can live your life without shoulds directing you. Learning to trust yourself will be key.
3. Minimize Should and Must to maximize your ability to live and love well
Self-compassion, self-discovery, and authenticity are gifts that accompany your willingness to shed your shoulds. In addition, you may find that you are more able to invite loved ones to a more honest, accepting and compassionate relationship with you.
Also, feeling less compelled to live up to outside demands, your tendency to control others with a list of your own shoulds and musts may lessen. Sensitivity and awareness will extend beyond yourself and open your mind to what others need and want, too. As a result, loving yourself and others can be a much more meaningful experience.
Are You Ready To Live Free?
All in all, it’s true that should and must are often sneaky, unforgiving taskmasters. But, hopefully, now you can start to believe your life is bigger than you thought… and entirely yours to reimagine.
So, go ahead, gather some solid support and get to work.
Shed your should and must habit. Change your mind. You’re ready.