The word should can have several meanings, but the most relevant here is the one from Google dictionary, which Grounding Growth also referenced.
“used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions
- indicating a desirable or expected state
- used to give or ask advice or suggestions
- used to give advice”
Should is a very social verb (although for our purposes I’m mostly going to use it as both verb and noun). If I’m living in a cave in the middle of nowhere, shoulds become irrelevant; there are no shoulds in isolation. Survival comes down to what we must and must not do. Should starts to muddy things up when it comes to social norms, and comparisons between what’s deemed acceptable/desirable and unacceptable/undesirable.
The shoulds associated with broader societal expectations are very hard to change. What we can change, though, is the extent to which we internalize those shoulds. We may not be able to change how others view us if we violate those shoulds, but we can control the extent to which we judge ourselves based on adherence to shoulds. There’s something very freeing about being able to just not give a crap what other people expect, although of course that’s easier said than done. I tend to do this by just not liking most people, although that’s probably not all that healthy either.
When it comes to smaller social groups, it could potentially be easier to nudge certain shoulds in a different direction. There’s also the possibility of leaving the social group, and while this may be quite difficult, there is still some element of control.
Shoulds we impose on ourselves
In many cases, externally imposed shoulds pale in comparison to the shoulds we heap upon ourselves. These may be external shoulds that have become more extreme through the lens of mental illness, or they may be shoulds we’ve cooked up all on our own. These shoulds are likely to influence overall self-evaluation, forming connections that really should be there in the first place.
I didn’t do X like I should have, and that makes me not good enough. Except if we were to take a step back, a more reasonable conclusion would be I wanted to do X this way, but I didn’t/couldn’t. End of story. That “not good enough” is a judgment attached to the should that’s not inherent in the situation in any objective manner. And really, anytime we’re talking shoulds, we’re talking about judgments.
What’s the alternative?
What, then, is the alternative to shoulds? Well, shoulds are in our head and objective reality is what’s going on outside our heads, so a good place to start is looking for objective evidence to support our ideas, the kind of evidence that an outside observer would be able to see and acknowledge. This is one of the areas that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) hones in on.
Shoulds often revolve around extremes like “always” and “never”, another form of what CBT would consider cognitive distortions. Real life is seldom that black and white, so try to look for the grey area.
Or to take a mindfulness perspective, when we ground ourselves in the present moment, the shoulds start to slip away and leave behind just being.
We all screw up. We all fail. It’s part of being human, and something that allows us to learn. If you’re too busy beating yourself up with your should nunchucks, you may end up missing those opportunities for learning and growth.
A crucial first step in challenging the should monster is to recognize how often you’re using them. And trust me, you’re probably using them A LOT. So pay attention to your inner dialogue, or the things you’re writing down in your journal. Work on having a finely tuned should radar so they don’t regularly slide by unnoticed.
You are more than your shoulds. So stop shoulding all over yourself and get on with living the best life you can.