These are statements I hear from my clients every day:
- I should attend that function tonight.
- I should feel more excited to see my partner.
- I should feel happier over the holidays.
- I should spend more time practicing mindfulness.
- I should eat better foods.
You can probably discern the common word: should. As I soon as I hear a "should statement," I know that my client is suffering from an externally imposed expectation, and inevitably comparing her or himself to a cultural ideal of "good" or "right" behavior.
Let's take the statement: I should feel more excited to see my partner. We carry a cultural idea that says that if you're away from your partner and not pining for him or her, it's an indication that something is wrong or missing from the relationship. Our minds then go to: I'm not in love enough or I'm with the wrong person and the anxious spiral begins.
But you can see that the anxiety originates from a "should" statement, which, again, in an indicator that you're holding yourself to an external standard of "right" feelings or behavior. There are no right feelings in relationships; there is only what works for the two of you.
Let's explore another "should" statement: I should spend more time practicing mindfulness. While mindfulness is proven to increase well-being, if you're practicing mindfulness because you "should" do it and not because you truly want to do it, you'll quickly find the practice dwindling away into a sea of self-created resentment as you resist what's good for you because you now feel controlled by your own externally imposed requirements for being a "better" person!
Since so many people grew up listening to a litany of rules, when the word "should" infiltrates into your own running commentary, you will likely respond to yourself the same way you responded to your well-meaning caregivers and authority figures: with resistance (since no one want to feel controlled).
And yet another "should" statement: I should attend that function tonight. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was invited to a holiday function at her husband's company. She hadn't had a day off from work in weeks and she was exhausted, but she felt obligated to attend because she knew it was expected and her husband would feel disappointed if she declined. "I just want to go home and have a hot bath," she told me. "
So why don't you?" I asked. "That's clearly what you really want to do."
But her sense of should-derived guilt overrode her heart's desire and she ended up attending the event, then picking a fight with her husband on the way home. Since she wasn't able to find a way to attend with true good will, I'm sure her husband would have preferred to deal with his own disappointment rather than spend the evening with a wife who didn't want to be there.
Can you imagine how much more lovingly she would have received her husband when he returned home had she spent the evening lovingly attending to her own needs?
What's essential to understand is that actions derived from "shoulds" aren't loving to anyone. Since my friend attended the function because she was trying to be a "good" wife, she was betraying not only herself but also her partner. Now, this isn't to say that there aren't times when we do need to assess the greater good and put our individual needs aside—especially in marriage—but when we repeatedly ignore our inner no to please others, the results are ultimately disastrous.
To heal from the addiction to should, start to notice how often the word populates your self-talk, and then notice how you feel inside when you fall prey to believing the should statement. When you hear the word should, ask, What would be most loving to myself and others right now?
Then listen closely for the answer.
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