The Devil's in the Shoulds

One of the things I really enjoy doing in my coaching is helping people unravel themselves from their ‘shoulds’. It’s incredible how much we let ourselves get tangled up in expectations; either emanating from ourselves, from others, from the media, or from society as a whole. Untangling these can be a confusing and messy process as we begin to understand which things are on our personal to-do list because we feel we SHOULD do them and which things are there because we actually want to do them, because they benefit us in some way or bring us joy. Some of these shoulds have been hanging around for years, causing us needless anxiety or leading us to feel a constant sense of pressure.

I think this is particularly true for people around my age (40s), as the shoulds have often become so embedded that we genuinely believe this is something we do, eg “I should start running again because I used to and I’ve always said I would do that, I'm a runner really”. But is there a reason we aren’t doing it? How many years has it been on the to-do list for? When did you actually last do it? Maybe it’s time to let that one go and find an exercise you enjoy.

It’s so easy to become completely overwhelmed with shoulds: I should dress more stylishly (“I’ll get round to it soon”), I should read that book on philosophy I’ve been meaning to read (for ten years), I should drink less coffee, I should meditate more, I should catch up on my emails, I should get in touch with that old Facebook friend (I haven’t heard from for five years), I should participate more in X, I should do more Y, I should think more like Z… etc etc. They sort of lie there underlying our thoughts unless we actually take the time to pick them up and examine them. Is it really something you still want to do? Is it realistic, in terms of fitting into your life as it currently is? Is it something that can wait until you have more time? Does it benefit your wellbeing or is it another example of giving too much to others? Will anyone but you notice if you don’t do it?

Unfortunately, it’s also easy to turn things we genuinely enjoy into shoulds. I genuinely enjoy walking in nature but if I haven’t consciously done it for a while, it can easily become a should. In these instances I find it helps to shift my focus. Shift your thinking to change your feelings. I try not to think of it as a should but instead as something I know I enjoy that I can do at anytime … when I’m ready. Even seeing friends we care about can become a should, even though we know when we see them we’ll enjoy it and be glad we did. Again, it’s about shifting your mental focus and remembering, with an open heart, how happy that particular friend makes you. But it’s also about allowing yourself some time alone if that’s what you need and that would actually be more beneficial to you than seeking company.

Of course, we have shoulds from which we can’t escape - washing your clothes, for example, or going to work - but why add to that list of undeniable shoulds with our own list of manufactured ones? Be honest, accept who you are and what you like doing, regardless of how others think you should be spending your time. It is your time after all.

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