You know what I mean! We all get really good at telling ourselves about all the things we should do, or should have done. Sometimes we disguise it by using a different expression, and, in the English language, we have lots of alternatives: ought to, have to, got to, must, need to – I think we have more ways of obliging ourselves than any other language!
And that is one of the reasons for challenging our tendency to ‘should’ ourselves: these words all imply an obligation or duty. In Meta we call them language devils, because they trigger an unconscious resistance to whatever they are attached to that makes it even harder to do it well.
What do I mean by this? Well, as a small child, you look at the world as a place where you can do and have what you want, and where you use your own intuition and perception to know what will make life feel good for you. This sounds selfish, and in some ways it is, but small children are also warm-hearted, giving, and generally quite happy! Then they begin to learn all the social rules: be quiet, sit still, finish your dinner, do your homework first, tidy your bedroom – the list just goes on and on…
They also observe how adults behave, and begin to notice that the majority seem to be driven by their extensive and complex list of should’s and ought’s: housework, visits to relatives, ways of dressing appropriately, and of course, the biggest one, their work life. Not only do they observe this, they notice the effect it has on adults: bad-tempered, tired, fed up, stressed – not exactly attractive is it!!
We talk about the stage of child development, 2 or 3 years old, when they have tantrums and refuse to obey the rules – is it any wonder? Then they give in, because they are wise enough to know that they need these adults to care for and protect them, so they fit in, more or less, and become accustomed to the rules.
When children become adolescents, they have another period of rebellion, questioning the custom and practice, the norms, and seeing how far they can stretch the limitations. But they have already absorbed the ‘fact’ that adults accept and take on most of the rules – they have observed it from birth – so most of us eventually give in and become the constrained, rule-driven adult that we know is inevitable.
For me, this happened after university. I knew that I now had to fit in more, take on the responsibilities of adulthood. I got the responsible job, I made sure I did all the acceptable things, and I became more and more stressed and miserable! How I was being just didn’t fit with my innate nature at all, so I was in a constant battle with myself – an exhausting way to live!
I was lucky enough to have a teacher/mentor who challenged this way of being. He pointed out that I wasn’t in control of my own destiny. My whole life seemed to be a set of duties and obligations, driven by something external to me – ought’s and should’s ran my life! And he asked me to experiment with ignoring some of them and following my own heart, and see what happened. I only dared to try it out on one thing – my whole life might fall apart if I wasn’t careful!!
So I started with washing up – a job I hated. My normal approach was to wash up after every meal, and to always volunteer to do it if I visited someone else – my mum had trained me well! I did always do it, bad-temperedly, often breaking pots in the process, but I got it done, and that was what mattered.
So I left it and just piled the dishes in the kitchen. After a day, something strange happened: I began to think that I would like to clear my kitchen up, that it would please me to have the washing up done and the place looking tidy again. So I did the washing up, with a goodwill, and was very pleased with myself – (by the way, those of you who know me will know that I still do my washing up less frequently than most people!)
I had learnt the first stages of the lesson:
- If you don’t do what you ought to, your world doesn’t fall apart
- If you wait until you decide you want to do it, it is easier, less stressful, and quite satisfying!
I continued to experiment from then on, gradually reducing the should’s in my life. With some I realised that they really were unnecessary and I could drop them altogether. With others, I found that if I made a choice to do them, I did them with more willingness and less hassle. It also helped if I decided when I would do them, so that I felt in control of what was going on. I also began to notice that when I choose to do things, as opposed to doing them when I should, I tend to do them in a more effective way, and get better results. After all I am no longer using some of my energy to battle my own reluctance – the rebellious teenager within – and to force myself into action, so I can focus that energy where it is more useful.
So what can we do to help ourselves to stop ‘should-ing’ so much:
- Experiment as I did with one of your habitual ‘should’s’ – make it something that’s not too important to begin with – and just leave it till you actually want to do it, or have it done.
- Start to leave ‘should’ out of your vocabulary. Experiment with ‘I want to..’ or ‘I’m choosing to…’ or ‘I want to have xxx done’ or simply ‘I will..’ Notice that ‘I want to..’ is not always convincing – I never really want to do the washing up! – but I will decide to do it, or want to have the kitchen cleared, and those statements both make me feel in charge, rather than being forced to by some external rule.
- If you realise that you are should-ing yourself, stop for a moment, and give yourself a little treat as a reward for realising you’d forgotten again. Then ask yourself how you could deal with this in an easier way.
- If you really can’t get past the ‘should’, at least allow yourself to choose when you do it – sometimes just saying, ‘I should do such and such, and I will do it in half an hour’ gives you back the control, and makes it feel less driven.
Please do experiment with should-ing yourself less – it really can make a big difference to how you feel in your everyday life…