Mental Health & Illness

The Power of Saying No to Shoulds

The power of saying no to shoulds

How many times a day do find yourself thinking that you should do this or you should do that? Does saying no to shoulds feel like an option? What would it be like if you were to try saying no?

Society has all kinds of expectations for us. Some we hear directly from others (e.g. “Why aren’t you married yet?”), some we’re exposed to through the news and entertainment media, and some we’re exposed to on social media (like the Insta-perfect influencers). We should get married, have kids, have a good job, look a certain way, have our shit totally together, and get up at 5am for the perfect morning routine consisting of working out, meditating, eating avocado toast, doing perfect hair and makeup, etc.

It’s nonsense, because I don’t think very many people actually live the lives that they’re “supposed to.” I also think the influencers who look like they’ve got it all together are nowhere near as perfect as they make themselves look, and I’m sure they spend buttloads of time pretending to be perfect.

Needs, wants, and values

Shoulds can masquerade as needs, but they’re not the same thing. We’ve got our basic physiological needs, like food and water (this would correspond to the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). There are also indirect needs. You need shelter, which means you need to pay the rent, which means you need money, and if you were to just choose not to go to work tomorrow, that could jeopardize your job and ability to support yourself.

Some things you want to do, and there may be tasks that you need to do to meet those wants. I want to have snuggles with my guinea pigs, which means I need to clean out their cages regularly (so much poop!) in service of that want.

Then there are values—the stuff that’s important to you, so you do it even if it’s not particularly fun or you don’t particularly want to. Going to get my COVID vaccine wasn’t my idea of fun, but it was consistent with my values around taking steps to protect myself and others.

The arbitrariness of shoulds

Shoulds can come from expectations that we place on ourselves, others place on us, or we think that others might be placing on us. Where those shoulds are set is arbitrary, and may be decided by the inner critic or based on the opinions of people who aren’t the greatest influences in our lives. The shoulds we apply to ourselves might be very different from what we expect of others.

The potential consequences of not living up to these shoulds may be rather amorphous—someone might think [x] about me, or I might think [y] about myself.

Shoulds may exist entirely in our heads. It sucks if you’ve got people bugging you with comments like “why don’t you have kids yet” but is it possible that that the true weight of that should comes entirely from inside your head? What if you were to say fuck it (and fuck the people nattering at you) and just let it go?

Saying no

There are a lot of external pressures we face, like things that we have to do that are far more difficult than they should be (hello, chronic illness!). But maybe we can lighten the load a little by taking some time to say fuck it to arbitrary shoulds and let them go.

After all, you can’t do anything about the fact that you don’t have kids right now. You can’t stop people from nattering at you, but you do have at least some control over how much you beat yourself up over the head with it. It’s within our power to set boundaries with shoulds.

So here’s a challenge—this week, can you focus on your needs, wants, and values, and embrace saying no to your shoulds?

31 thoughts on “The Power of Saying No to Shoulds”

  1. Good post, Ashley. 💞 I got up at 5am yesterday. (My husband forgot to shut off his alarm). It was not all it is cracked up to be. I stumbled through the day looking like I had gotten hit by a bus.

  2. “The shoulds we apply to ourselves might be very different from what we expect of others.”

    Ain’t that the truth, Dear Lady! My husband often points this out when I am in service to friends that have absolutely no interest in being of service when the tides turn, and I am in need of help. I do find that as I have gotten older it’s become easier to just say “fuck it”; and yet, if I gave up every friend and/or loved one who was a mental and/or emotional drain, I fear I would end up utterly alone. (How sad is that?)

    It is a twisted world we live in, and those of us who suffer from mental afflictions (in my experience) find a way to twirl it up even more — becoming adept ribbon dancers in the process. I am grateful to have other bloggers like you in the sphere that understand the challenges our complicated minds both create and contend with (externally). Please continue to share your “experience, strength and hope”, Ms. Ashley! 🥰

  3. It’s a great week for me to do this since I’m on vacation! I agree that some shoulds are real shoulds ~ going to work, paying bills, cleaning up, etc. Some shoulds are in service of a greater good ~ staying in touch with friends in order to have friends, doing health-related things so as to (hopefully) feel good later, etc. But some I SHOULD say no to ~ the voice in my head saying I should work on my novels in progress because… why? Why should I? This doesn’t make me happy or add anything to my life except satisfy some OCD compulsion. Say no to dumb OCD habits! (Me to me.)

  4. Yes! The eleventh commandment (from a therapist): thou shalt not should on thyself. I work hard to change the “shoulds” to “coulds.”💖

  5. This really resonates with me. I put more shoulds on myself than anyone else. Even today I “should’ve” cycled to work instead of driving. I “should’ve” gotten up when I woke up instead of lying in bed for a few extra minutes.

    I will try your challenge, I hope I can do some good for myself with it 😊

  6. I really struggle with saying no, and I often put my needs and wants until last, so that I make everyone else’s expectation of me comes first. I’ve just realised this stems from my childhood and still very much lingers now. I want to say no more often, but I’m scared to.

  7. I live under a constant barrage of imaginary “shoulds,” it’s very guilt-inducing. It’s hard when you reach an age where people think you “should” have done xy&z but you haven’t.

  8. Shoulds are like oughts. Both are to be avoided. Every time I catch myself saying I ought to …. I stop and change it to I need to …. Or similar. Thank you for this reminder. Now I really want/need to get on with my day. But not should or ought to get on. ❤️

      1. Interesting. I use ought more that should. I actually googled the words to see what the difference is (I’m like that). There isn’t much to chose between them but I always feel that ‘ought’ is a stronger word that ‘should’. My friend coined the phrase ‘hardening of the oughteries’ (like hardening of the arteries) to describe an over use of feeling we ought to do things. I now use it too.

  9. Well let me see here. I get up at five in the morning and go through the daily routine of taking my levothryoxine, taking a sip of water, setting down the water glass unconsciously, looking for the glass, forgetting that I’m making coffee, dropping the filters on the floor, looking for my keys, setting down my keys somewhere will looking for my smartphone, and generally timing how long it takes for me to get out the door as my living environment takes on the same sense of perennial disarray as the brain I was born with.

    How people will disguise their inner weirdnesses to make it look like they fit the “mold” kinda baffles me. And societal expectations are just plain weird. I felt a lot of shame earlier in life because I was not doing things that I not only did not want to do but found I *couldn’t* do no matter how much I set my mind to them. This was at the expense of the many things I *could* do. The word “should” has no positive place in such a dynamic. What I could have done, was reflected on what I *could* have done, instead.

    Better late than never! There are a lot of things in life that I can do, and “can” works a lot better than “should.”

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