This particular blog is really aimed more at all the perfectionists out there, although I have a feeling it will apply to others as well.
- I should exercise more.
- I should cook healthy food for my family.
- I should be farther than I am in my career.
- I should recover more quickly.
- I should be able to x, y and z and still be …
- I should call my friends more often.
- I should go on all of my kids’ field trips.
- I shouldn’t get angry at my spouse.
- I should work through the pain.
- I should talk to that person.
- I should go to that event.
- I should be happy.
- I should be grateful.
How do you feel after reading that list? If your answer is “just fine, thanks…no big deal,” then maybe you needn’t read any further. If, though, you feel a bit queasy and even more anxious than you felt a minute ago, read on.
What is it about the word “should”? Why am I singling it out in this blog? 2 reasons.
- Labeling something as a “should” sets us up for black or white thinking. Success or failure. All or nothing. “If I do these things I will be a success. If I don’t I will be a failure.” Of course goals are great and we want to have goals in our lives, but goals are different than “shoulds.” All-or-nothing thinking sets us up to believe that our actions are a measuring stick for our inner quality and worth, rather than just an indication of what we have done that specific day.
- Should also implies some sort of moral imperative. “If I were a good person I would do these things.” And if you don’t do those things? That’s where the self-blame and poor self-esteem can start to step in, which does not tend to work well as a motivating force.
Do you have a running list of shoulds? How do you feel when they are going through your mind? Motivated? Or guilty? Paralyzed? Overwhelmed? As though you’ve failed before you’ve even begun?
I have this funny thing happen to me (maybe you can relate) when the “shoulds” really start to pile up: my inner 5 year old appears. I stomp my feet. I screw up my face. I cross my arms defiantly. “I don’t wanna!” I say to myself. And then, sometimes, I just don’t do it. Like any stubborn 5 year old, I take on my lack of action as a badge of honor. “I’m not gonna do it! That thing I should do…just see if you can make me!!” Is it just me? Or does it sometimes happen to you too?
Sometimes, though, it’s not the stubborn 5 year old that comes out, it’s the perfectionist – the people-pleaser that struggles with low self esteem. “Oh my goodness, I know this is something I really should do, but I didn’t do it yesterday and I don’t think I’ll be able to do it today. And what if I can’t do it tomorrow? Or the next day? Then maybe I just really can’t do it. Maybe I’m not good enough/smart enough/motivated enough and should just give up and not even try. Better to not do it at all then to do it once and never again. Or once and fail. Or admit to others it was something I wanted to do but didn’t. Or…” All of these thoughts can pull us into spirals that are sometimes hard to climb out of.
When I’m working with people and I start hearing the list of shoulds, I know we have fun and meaningful work ahead of us. Here’s a good place to start for any of you out there who can relate to the above.
First of all if you think this might be you, start to keep a “should” journal. When the “shoulds” jump into your mind, write them down, but don’t do anything else with them. After a few days, take a look at your list. Is it helping you? Are all those “shoulds” moving you in the direction you want to go? Or are they sitting on your shoulders like an elephant? If they are helping, great! No need to go any further. If they are more elephant-ish in nature, try this..
Pick the one that’s weighing on you most and rewrite your “should” in one of the following ways:
- I really want to….
- I believe it would be good for me to….
- I might feel better if I….
- I would enjoy….
If your “should” fits into one of the above categories as true for you, then move forward. Make a plan – an achievable plan! – and start to tackle it. If your plan includes goals, write them as “coulds” instead of “shoulds” and see if it feels any different to you. If your “should” doesn’t fit into any of the above as true (even if it might be true in the future), then give yourself permission to let it go, at least for now. If it pops back up (which it likely will), then acknowledge it, write it down again, and let it go again. If humor or imagery works for you, you can even try imagining it as an elephant lumbering away from you as you say goodbye. “So long, Mr. Elephant!”
Does sound overly simplistic? Perhaps. But language is powerful, even when we are only using it in conversations with ourselves. Give it a try – and feel free to write to me to let me know how it felt to you!