Stop “Shoulding” Yourself
WHAT ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO BE DOING RIGHT NOW?
No really, take a second and ask yourself that question, and pay attention to what words were used.
If you are reading this, chances are your response to that question in your head went something like “I really should be doing x,y, or z”. We think that is a gentle reminder to get back to what “matters.” However, the word “should” is one of the most damaging words in the English language. It can lower your self-esteem, decrease your sense of self-worth, and limit your ability to succeed in life. Worse, it acts as a vicious circle, which ensures that you’ll only crawl further downward. As simple as it sounds, simply dropping the word from your daily interactions and the way you talk to yourself, could change your life to be a whole lot better.
If you think this is hyperbole, see for yourself. As you’re reading this right now, ask yourself what you should be doing. No really, I’ll wait. Sit back and ask yourself the question as it’s written: “What should I be doing right now?”. We all know it’s not scrolling here. Even if you’ve given yourself some rationale that you’re staying connected to your network, you’re probably here because you started scrolling down a page and got lost for longer than planned. You’ve got important tasks to be doing. Whether they are a report for work, taking your poor dog for a walk, or spending some quality time with your friends and loved ones. You’ve got something you should be doing.
Now… how do you feel? Not in some abstract sense. What happened in your body? How’s your breathing? Take 30 seconds to reflect on that, I promise it’s worth the time.
If you’re anything like the rest of humanity, you don’t feel great. You don’t feel motivated. You don’t feel like you can do that task. You feel worse. You feel ashamed. You made excuses. Your body slumped, and your breathing slowed and became more shallow. The last thing you are likely to do right now is to go out and do that activity you feel like you should be doing.
The good news is, you’re not alone. This is a universal human emotion. Simply writing it had me, behind this keyboard, struggling to gather the energy to move forward. Psychologists have known for years that using the word “should” is the least likely thing to get you to take action. I’ve struggled with all of the things I “should” be doing for years. It’s held me back, kept me spinning in circles, and more than once caused a total meltdown. It’s done the same for others whom I love and respect, and it’s a vicious cycle.
THE POINT OF THIS ARTICLE
By the end of this article, I hope that you’re able to carry away the fear of the word should that last more than the 10 minutes you spend on LinkedIn. It would be all well and good for me to write an article about being kinder to yourself. It would be like every other article you’ve read that has “10 Things Emotionally Intelligent People Do / Don’t Do” or some other blige.
The problem with articles like that, is they don’t have what’s known as emotional resonance. They are dealing with large, emotional problems, that are rooted in deep roots of shame and self-image. Things you can’t fix in the 5 minutes that you spend reading a random article. Instead, all they do is add to your list of “shoulds” and make you feel even worse.
So my goal is different. My goal is to make you stare into the void. To wrestle with the thousand needles that you’re poking yourself with, even for 5 minutes. On one single topic, and one single word. I’m hoping that you’ll look at it a little differently. That you’ll drop some of the “shoulds” from your life to make room for the “must” to let this word go forever.
JEEZ… THIS SOUNDS LIKE DEFCON 5. IS IT REALLY SUCH A BIG DEAL?
You might tell yourself that sure that should isn’t that bad, that it only causes minor damage, or that I’m blowing it out of proportion. However, I’m here to show you that you can change your life drastically by changing one single word. Every time you use should in a sentence, you decrease your sense of self-esteem and ability to act on your goals, and that single habit can ruin your life. It is a symptom of something larger, yes, but it’s also the fuel that you’re feeding it a hundred times a day. Start here, and miracles can happen.
Why in the world does that happen?
Because every time you say it, you feel like you should be doing it. Not should do it sometime in the future, but that you were supposed to be doing it already, and you better get on it immediately. That you’re a failure for not having been doing it already. That you’re not good enough for not having been able to do this yet.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself. There’s a near 100% chance that you have something in your life that you’ve tried to do more than once, and failed. Something that you feel like you should be doing, and you’ve tried, but it didn’t work. It could be going to the gym. It could be eating healthy. However, it could also be saying “I love you” to someone you love. It could be asking someone on a date, or sharing something you’re scared of sharing for fear of rejection. It could be anything, but chances are you should do it, and you should have done it more than once…
Now, what happens when you tell yourself you “should” do it? Really. You’ve said it a hundred times, do it once more. You know what happens. You don’t need me to tell you. Do you berate yourself? Do you tell yourself to stop being such an *insert insult here* and just go ahead and do it? Do you tell yourself you’re an *insert compliment here* and you shouldn’t be afraid of doing this? Do you promise yourself that you’re going to go ahead and do it, you’ll just get around to it tomorrow?
In other words, have you made it a part of your identity and a reflection of your self-worth and well-being whether or not you do whatever this thing is? Have you told yourself in no uncertain terms that a real man or woman would have already done it, that only cowards or the weak-willed aren’t able to pull it off? Perhaps your wording isn’t as strong as that, but are we in the ballpark?
I’ll say what we all know we did. We not only set ourselves up to fail at something by trying to shame and blame ourselves into it because that would be bad enough. We’ve made promises to ourselves, tied them into beliefs about who we are, and berated ourselves to get moving. Now, Isn’t that a recipe for success?
You may tell me that sometimes it gets you moving. That sometimes you need to be like a caged animal prodded with an electric shock of pain to get moving. You ate the salad, went to the gym, asked them out, stood up for yourselves. But you don’t, do you? You tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow, you promise yourself.
Or even worse (*god how can it be worse*) you do it. You have just berated yourself into a frenzy of pain and self-hurt and tied your entire self-esteem into it. You’ve put yourself in a state of near depression and pain, expecting yourself to fail. Is that the state you want to be in when you ask that guy or girl out? Is that the state you want to be in with a difficult conversation? Is that the state you want to be in showing up at the gym for the first time in 6 months getting looks from that person with the perfect abs?
God… is there any worse a recipe for failure than berating yourself into it and hating yourself while you’re at it. So you do it, you go up shoulders slumped, heads down, quiet and convince yourself to go say something just to get out of the pain you’ve put yourself in.
No matter what happens, you’ve still lost. You have treated yourself as cruelly as a cattle being led to the slaughterhouse with electric prods. You go to the gym and pull off a half-hearted workout, or you pull off the report. Then what?
I bet you say nice things to yourself, don’t you? You say that you’re proud of yourself for asking, that you put yourself out there and that this isn’t the end of the world, don’t you?…
No, we know we don’t do that. We tell ourselves we should have done it sooner. That we should have done it better. That a real X, Y, or Z would have just been able to do it already.
Whether we tried to do the thing, or we didn’t, we ended up with the same result. We failed ourselves in the worst way. We made something a sense of our identity, a mark on our courage, our self-will, our self-esteem to do something… and then we put ourselves in a place where we didn’t have the energy to do it. We broke a promise to ourselves, and a little piece of our belief in ourselves, our belief in our capacity to change dies with it.
This is the part of the story where you start trying to tell me that I’m overreacting a little bit. That it doesn’t happen like that all the time. That sometimes you’re just trying to tell yourself you really should hang out with your cousin soon, or switch to working on something else.
But you know better than that. We proved it at the beginning of this story. You may go ahead and do whatever you thought of that you should do at the beginning. But it doesn’t change the fact that you used shame to get yourself to do it. It doesn’t change that you’re treating yourself like a disapproving nun to convince yourself to do your day-to-day activities. That you’re disempowering yourself about little things. That you’re constantly telling yourself that you should be doing better than you are, not later, but that you’re already failing and not living up to the bar you’ve set.
You didn’t tell yourself that you could do those things, you said you should. That by definition implies that you were supposed to have been doing it already, or supposed to do it in the future, but either weren’t or weren’t planning on it. That who you are is not good enough and will have to change some things to get around to being good enough in the future.
So do me a favor, and stop doing this to yourself. Pay attention to your words, and switch from tearing yourself down, piece by piece, day by day. Instead, say I could, I must, or be honest with yourself or others and just say it’s not a priority right now. The words you tell yourself matter. The language you use defines whether you’re permitting yourself, making a decision, or telling yourself you were supposed to have been doing it already.
Because if you don’t, you will continue to lose faith in yourself over time. You will continue to tell yourself you should be a different person, doing different things, and that you’ll never be good enough. Then, when you fail, you won’t think to blame your language for putting yourself in a state where you were destined to fail. You’ll call yourself a failure. Call yourself a failure enough times, and you’ll end up one.
If this hit you hard, and you’re feeling some hardcore shame about the way you do things, I’m both sorry and grateful. I’m sorry because I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through, and it sucks. I’m grateful because sometimes we need to delve into the pain of the void to recognize what we’re doing to ourselves. If you’re ready to get out of this state, I’m going to recommend some books that changed my life on this topic: