"The Tyranny of Shoulds" and how to release yourself from it

24 May, 2009

www.charlottehinksman.com for therapy, coaching and training services in Wellington.

I have been wanting to write this blog for a long time.  A client of mine came in one day and in the first session were discussing the things that she wanted to change about herself and her life, and she said "I want to stop using the word SHOULD - you know, it's like my life is a tyranny of "shoulds.." and we laughed about it because I knew exactly what she meant - from my own personal experience and from my experience working with a great deal of clients.


It's one short word, just seven little letters long.  It doesn't seem that bad on face value really.  So, what's the big deal about the word SHOULD?

It's an auxiliary verb i.e. a "helping" verb ( a verb used in conjunction with another verb i.e. I should (aux. verb) run (verb) faster).  It is defined by the dictionary as follows:

aux.v.   Past tense of shall
Used to express obligation or duty: You should send her a note.Used to express probability or expectation: They should arrive at noon.Used to express conditionality or contingency: If she should fall, then so would I.Used to moderate the directness or bluntness of a statement:I should think he would like to go.

In NLP terms it is what we call a Modal Operator.  This means a word that kind of drives our experience.  There are Modal Operators of necessity (should, shouldn't) and of possibility or impossibility (can, can't).  It may seem like pointless analytics of semantics but when communicating with ourselves inside our heads or listening to our client's language when they come to a session, changing these "semantics" can actually make a huge difference to our experience inside our heads and consequently the results we get in our lives.  

Not all uses of the word little word "should" cause a problem.  For example commenting on someone's arrival "they should arrive at noon" is pretty benign.   However when we are continuously "shoulding" all over OURSELVES it causes US problems (it is also useful also to be aware of how we use the word should when communicating to others in our lives although that won't be explicitly discussed here).   Let me explain more:

Consider the following statements / comments we might (hypothetically speaking) say to ourselves:

"I should know better"

"I shouldn't be feeling like this"

"I should be asleep by now"

"I should be able to sort this out by myself"

"I should be able to do it like them"

"I should understand it by now"

"I shouldn't be struggling with this"

Do any of these press a button for you?  Any of us having been through the western education system the way that it is (with a huge focus on "doing well" and high achievement) will undoubtedly have grown up "shoulding" on ourslves like this.  Growing up with parents wanting us to achieve simply fires the drive to prove ourselves and the shoulding continues.  Then enter higher education, our first job, a new country, training in a new field or discipline, anything that challenges us and drives our desire to DO or BE something MORE than we are right now will cause us to should on ourselves.

The very nature of using the word in this kind of context is:

a) a judgment 

b) non-acceptance of the way things currently are

c) results in a conflict within you

d) holds you in the problem (i.e. not solution focussed)

The general underlying theme is therefore: 

what is right now is not acceptable therefore something different (usually something BETTER) is much more acceptable thank you very much.

It is either more acceptable to YOU or more acceptable to the PERSON or PEOPLE whose expectations you want to meet (so that they have a favourable opinion of you) or indeed wanting to measure up to the various expectations of the SOCIETY you are part of (you should be more successful, earning more money, a better father, you should be more relaxed after all those years of yoga etc.).  Even it it feels like you are interested only in living up to your own expectations, these are likely to have come from someone else's expectations of you.  Yes I know, that's a very "therapist" like thing to say, and I stand by it!  We are usually not born with such expectations of ourselves that we "should" live up to every minute of every day for the rest of our lives.  It doesn't mean they are bad, it is just worth noticing where those expectations come from.

The thing about having these expectations that we SHOULD be living up to is that, in any given moment, life is NOT perfect all the time and they therefore might be quite unrealistic expectations.  And, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are NOT perfect and neither am I!  Not in the way the "expectations" want you to be to be "perfect" i.e. perfect job, perfect house, perfect family, perfect ability to cope with life's challenges at any given moment, perfect ability to "do well" at anything new, perfect ability to relax at will, perfect weight and body shape, a perfect new mother, father, perfect children who never make mistakes, perfect.....need I go on?

These expectations of perfection ARE impossible to live up to and sustain over any reasonable period of time.  And as long as you are expecting to, you are going to experience negative feelings about yourself and about life.  Life will never stay static - there will always be changes.  Just when you think it's all going "perfectly" a change will occur and it could be challenging.  That's life.  It's the same for all of us.  If you have expectations that are different, it will be hard to meet them over any reasonable period of time.  Learning how to respond to life's challenges in a useful way is what this article is really about.

Of course, life is perfect in its imperfection - but we are not brought up in western societies celebrating life's imperfections are we?  A successful life should be a a certain way and therefore so should we.  And when we start to fall short of that, we SHOULD all over ourselves and start to panic and that's when people stop sleeping well, get lower self-esteem and come to see someone like me so I can help them love and accept themselves more and move through the rest of their lives being peaceful and happy whilst responding to challenges usefully and achieving new things.

The good news is, you are not alone, and it can all change for the better.

Some of you may have detected what may seem initially like a contradiction in what I am saying.  You might be thinking that when we notice something is NOT as we desire it in our lives and we want it to be better, that surely that's a good thing, and surely that it what people hire me for - as a therapist and a coach - to help people CHANGE for the better? And if the word SHOULD helps us realise this then why is she disputing the validity of it?  What's going on here?!

So, to answer you; YES - experiencing the CONTRAST in life that offers us the opportunity to identify what we do not want so we can start identifying what we do want is VERY useful indeed.  AND as a human being, you will always be growing and expanding if you allow yourselves to (for that is what I believe you are on this planet to do) and you realise then, that you will never stop PREFERRING.  You will always want something to be better than now - because that IS growth!  So, great - no problem there.

However, it is the nature in which you NOTICE and THINK ABOUT what it is you do not want that I am challenging here.  And whether the things you think you want are actually YOUR own preferences or come from the EXPECTATIONS from others or society and whether they are (a) realistic or (b) useful. 

Consider this.  You notice there's something going on in your life which you don't want.  You start thinking:

"hey I am not very relaxed and after these years in yoga I should really know better by now"

which is VERY different from thinking;

"I am not very relaxed in my life right now, I would like to get better at relaxing while I go about my work"

Or consider the contrast between:

"I am struggling with this new information, after all those years of education I should know this by now!"


"I am struggling with all this new information, I would like to find ways of learning more easily"

And let's have one more example, because I know that our brains like to do things in threes:

"I often get asked questions in my job that I don't immediately know the answer to and I should be able to answer them straight away"


"I often get asked questions in my job that I don't immediately know the answer to and I'd like to get better at handling those tricky situations to help people more effectively".

Are you realising the difference now?  Well you SHOULD be (just kidding - sorry, I couldn't resist the humour in that one..).  One is a self-judgement and creates an internal conflict (what is happening right now is NOT as good as I want it to be) and holds you in the problem pattern and just feeling bad about it (i.e. not solution focussed at all).  You could easiy just go about your day judging yourself for the problems you are having and feeling really bad about the conflct you've created between what IS and what SHOULD BE and then NOT finding any kind of WORKABLE solutions for them.  That's exactly what SHOULDING on YOURSELF does to you!

OR, you can enjoy noticing the CONTRAST between what currently IS going on right now and what you would PREFER.  Whatever currently IS, IS!  So you may as well ACCEPT it.  You won't change it by being harsh with yourself about it.  However you CAN identify that you PREFER something DIFFERENT or BETTER and then you can start enjoying the many opportunities that life will offer you to notice this contrast which is the natural scope for GROWTH and begin to set REALISTIC and VIABLE outcomes for yourself that actually ALLOW you to GROW and EXPAND in a SOLUTION FOCUSSED way and you may even, in the process perhps ADJUST the expectations you have of yourself to be more in line with what YOU prefer, and NOT what OTHERS or SOCIETY would prefer OF you.  Then you can MOVE FORWARD in your life enjoying GROWTH and EXPANSION in a KIND TO YOURSELF way that helps you practice ACCEPTANCE of SELF and ACCEPTANCE OF WHAT IS and allows HAPPINESS and PEACE and CONTENTMENT with yourself and your life AS IT IS whilst PREFERRING and GROWING AND EXPANDING because you are PREFFERING something different from now and can now ACHEIVE much more from this preferable way of thinking about "problems" and solutions. 

So, here's my strategy for helping you do the above (if that is what you choose to pefer):

1)  Acknowledge the "problem" - what it is that could be better and say to yourself:

"I acknowledge that I am not relaxed right now"

2)  Set your outcome in a positive and solution focussed way:

"I would like to be more relaxed in my day to day life"

3)  Find solutions to help you meet your own outcome.  You can brainstorm a list:

Sign up to that mediation class

Listen to that relaxation CD

Listen to that music I like

Take the time to unwind after my working day

Give myself permission to relax in the evening

Read that inspiring book that reminds me to chill out

Go and see xxxx who always makes me feel better

You may wish to keep a notebook or a diary for just these POSITIVE outcomes, so you can refer back to your identifyed solutions at a later time if necessary.  Your unconscious mind wil resond so much more positively and favourable when you communicate with yourself in this way as opppse to the self-judgement, conflict creating, feel bad, no solutions way.  You can begin to eliminate that little damaging word from your vocabluary and release yourself from "The Tyranny of the Shoulds".  Life will be much more enjoyable as you enjoy your expansion in this more positive way- you can really trust me on that one.

A beautuful quote I found recently is fitting here:

"When you realise how perfect 

everything is

you will tilt your head back

and laugh at the sky".

- Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha)

Comments as always, are welcome.

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