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 5 am 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 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?
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?
There’s more on shoulds in the post The Should Monster: The Problem with “I Should”