“Stop shoulding on yourself.” ~Albert Ellis
I was buried under a pile of shoulds for the first thirty-two years of my life. Some of those shoulds were put on me by the adults in my life, some were heaped on because I am a middle child, but most were self-imposed thanks to cultural and peer influence.
“You should get straight A’s, Jill.”
“You shouldn’t worry so much, Jill.”
“You should be married by now, Jill.”
“You should get your Master’s degree.”
I could go on forever. The pile was high, and I was slowly suffocating from the crushing weight on my soul.
What’s so significant about age thirty-two? It’s when I decided to divorce my husband of eighteen months (after a big ole Catholic wedding) and ask my parents for money to pay the attorney’s retainer. This is a gal with a great childhood, MBA, and a darned good catch for a husband.
From the outside, our life looked charmed and full of potential. We’d just purchased our first home, were trying to start a family (despite suffering two miscarriages) and were building our careers. What no one else saw was the debilitating mountain of consumer debt, manipulative behavior, and my intuition’s activated alarm system… sounding off in reaction to the life I’d built and was, for all intents and purposes, stuck in.
My intuition was done with the low-level warnings. She was sick and tired of being ignored, so she sounded the big one—an alarm that demanded action instead of lip service. I still tried challenging her; what she had presented me with was asinine.
“But I can’t divorce him. We just got married. What will everyone think? I’m so embarrassed. I should have made better choices. How did I end up here? I did everything right, right? I should suck it up and stick it out; that’s what good Catholics do. This is kind of what life is, I guess… kinda sad, but it seems to work for most everyone else. Ugh, I wanted this… now I’m, what, changing my mind?”
The alarm was not going to shut off until I sat long enough with those notions to yield honest answers. That was some tough sh*t to sit in. And even tougher to plod through. But it was better than being buried under it.
This was my first lesson in “There’s only one way out of this mess.” There’s no express lane, no backroad, no direct flight. This ride resembled the covered wagon kind. Bumpy, hot, dirty, and uncomfortable as hell.
I relented, listened, and tapped into the hidden reserve of courage I didn’t know existed within me.
The time had come to quit living according to the “should standard” everyone else around me had subscribed to. The time had come to accept this curated life was not the one that would yield happiness for me. The time had come to turn up the volume on this newfound voice and assert to myself (and everyone else) that I was cutting my losses and trusting my inner compass.
The time had come to stop shoulding myself.
Shoulds were my grocery list, my roadmap for life. How was I going to do this adult thing without my instructions???
I’d already managed to clear a huge should—hello, divorce—and after that, with every should I challenged, another paradigm crumbled. I began to notice shoulds all over the place. After that, my awareness of intention got keener, and I could sniff out the subtle shoulds like a bloodhound.
SHOULD: When are you having kids?
CHOICE: I do not want to have children. (Remember I miscarried twice with my first husband. I was checking boxes on my adulting grocery list. Honesty yielded clarity.)
SHOULD: He’s too old for you and he has four boys of his own.
CHOICE: He is my person. His sons deserve to see their father in a healthy, happy relationship. I can show them love in a new, different way.
SHOULD: You’re making great money in your job. Why walk away from your amazing 401(k) and great benefits to risk starting your own business?
CHOICE: I want to build a life I’m not desperate to take a vacation from. I want to live, serve others, and know when I’m at the end of my life that I chose it and made the most of it.
Deleting the word “should” is a big first leap in taking ownership of your life. By altering your vocabulary in a simple way, you naturally become mindful of the words you put in its place. Instead of “I should….” substitute with “I choose to….” Instead of “You should…” try “Have you considered…?”
Keep track of every time you say or hear “should” in a day. Then spend time with each one and get toddler with yourself. Ask why. Ask it again.
Who says you have to get married or have kids or work a job you hate that looks good on paper? Who says you have to look a certain way or do certain things with your free time that don’t appeal to you? Why are you restless in your life? What idea keeps popping up, begging for your attention? Are you living your truth? What’s in the way? What pile of shoulds are you buried under?
I get it. We’ve been programmed by our culture and our family traditions to follow the path, stay on course, climb the ladder to success! It’s the only way to be happy, they say. It’s the only way we’ll be proud of you, they insinuate.
We’ve been indoctrinated with this thought pattern and belief system, and it seems impossible that we have the power to choose otherwise. We have the opportunity, the autonomy, the choice to rewire our iOS and make it what is ideal for ourselves.
Overwhelm is natural; the antidote is to start small. Find one piece of low-hanging fruit, take a bite, and taste how sweet it is. For example, say no to an invite if you’d rather spend your time doing something else. Allow yourself to do nothing instead of telling yourself you should be doing something productive. Or let yourself feel whatever you feel instead of telling yourself you should be positive.
Feel how nourishing it is to choose yourself. Experience satiety in your soul. Release restlessness and replace it with intention guided by your intuition.
Do that and you’ll never should again. Or maybe you will—who says you should be perfect? At the very least you’ll think twice before letting should control you, and you’ll be a lot happier as a result!