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"Shoulding" All Over Ourselves!

» Mental Health Library » Featured Articles

By Patty Muller, LPC

Patty Muller, LPC

Whenever I’m working with someone on self-care, self-love and self-approval issues, a part of me is always waiting for the first "should" statement to come out–and I usually don’t have to wait very long. Most of us are riddled with "shoulds", "oughts" and a multitude of other ways to express to ourselves what actions we need to take in order for us to be good people, parents, spouses, employees, etc. And therein lies the unpleasant truth hiding in the heart of every "should" statement we make to ourselves: the unspoken beginning of every sentence that contains the word should within it is, "in order to be a GOOD person, I should...." just fill in the blank with the directive of the moment. Which means that every time we use a should on ourselves, we’re reinforcing the harmful idea that we are NOT good enough, just as we are. Should statements are like hoops we have to jump through before we’ll grant approval and love to ourselves. And love, genuine love, has nothing to do with jumping through hoops. Can you imagine only loving and approving of your children if they do every single thing you think they should? It seems so clearly wrong, when we try and apply those rules to those we love.

Love and approval of self needs to be thoroughly and clearly separated from however we think we’re scoring that day on our "should" scales. There’s a simple, incredibly useful way to start to create that healthy separation: just mentally replace every inner "should" you hear yourself say with "could". The term "could" is completely neutral–it makes no value judgements, it’s just about options: I could do this, or I could do that; either way it has nothing to do with my value as a human being. Using could instead of should neatly sidesteps the world of judgement inherent in every "should" statement. And taking the constant self-judgement out of our choices gives us a shot at actually going after what we might want, for a change, instead of constantly trying to prove our worth by jumping through behavioral hoops.

Breaking the should habit isn’t easy; it’s been selling us a bill of goods for most of our lives: "stick with me kid," should says, "and I’ll keep you on the straight and narrow, nice and safe with no surprises."

The PR of "should" (and pretty much every habit or part of the self that is keeping us from reaching our full potential) is that it just has our best interests at heart, honest it does! "Why, without ME," should declares, " you’d be running wild, doing whatever you want, whenever you feel like it, things would all just fall to pieces without me holding it all together!" And probably that’s true–IF you’re four years old! Children need clear guidance about right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy choices. But if you’ve made it to adulthood, chances are you already have some ideas about those things, and don’t need a loudmouth inner judge banging the gavel at you night and day to avoid running wild.

Almost always the inner "should" messages originated with some external influence: a parent, a teacher, an older sibling, even the culture itself is rife with directives for us about how we ought to behave. We hear things often enough and we internalize them–we take over the role of the original influence directing us to behave in certain ways. So now it’s not great aunt Stella telling us to fold our napkin after we eat, at least not consciously; now it’s an inside job. In elementary school, I had a principal who, in retrospect, had a raging case of obsessive compulsive disorder. He had a pathological hatred of those paper straw covers that come with disposable straws, and would go from table to table in the cafeteria directing us all to wad those paper covers into teeny little paper balls. (Which clearly shows he was in the grip of a compulsion–if he’d thought about it for one second, he would’ve made the logical connection we all did–little wads of paper in close proximity to straws equals...spitballs!). To this day, if I take a straw out of a paper cover, I automatically wad that thing into a tiny little ball. Though now I’m not likely to turn it into a projectile, well, not usually! The point of all this is that our internalized authority figures, like all authority figures, can end up generating rebellion, if we’re not careful. Too many inner shoulds can make the inner rebellious teenager lurking in us all rear up and take charge. That’s when we tend to make not so great decisions, based on doing just the opposite of whatever that internal authority is ordering us to do. But when we’re making knee-jerk rebellious choices, we’re every bit as much controlled by whatever we’re rebelling against as if we were meekly going along with the directives. Either way, we’re not behaving according to our own independent assessment of what choice will best serve our own highest good. Either way, we’re behaving as if we don’t really HAVE a choice.

Breaking of the should habit means beginning to build a trusting relationship with yourself. It means starting to listen to that inner, intuitive knowing voice that we all have, and risking being guided by it instead of succumbing to shoulds. What might look different in your life, if your behaviors were less dictated by shoulds, and more directed by that inner voice of knowledge?


Close your eyes and imagine yourself living a day free of "shoulds"; begin by picturing waking up, beginning your day–what would it look like, doing what your inner voice suggests? Unhampered by the demands and expectations of others, or even by your own? Go through a whole, imaginary day of doing just what your own intuitive knowledge of what will serve you best directs you to do. You have that knowledge, we all do, as our birthright. It might manifest as a fantasy, a voice, as a picture, as a strong pull in some direction you can’t quiet explain. It’s different for everyone. The important thing is to begin to turn your attention inward, to tune in and begin to listen for your own little intuitive voice, lost in a wilderness of external noise about who you ought to be and what you should do, according to everyone else.

About the Author...

Patty Muller is in private practice in Portland, Oregon.

Last Update: 9/5/2008

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