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Stop 'Shoulding' Yourself to Death

How to break free from the 'should police' and re-discover want.

Are you "shoulding" yourself to death? All day, every day, are you telling yourself what you "should" do? Have you forgotten what you even "want"? If you are like most people, the answer is "yes."

The "Should" List Best-Sellers:

  • You should be grateful to be alive.
  • You should forgive.
  • You should be compassionate.
  • You should meditate.
  • You should give back.
  • You should be able to do nothing.
  • You should be productive.
  • You should de-clutter.
  • You should take more trips.
  • You should appreciate what you have.
  • You should spend more time with your kids.
  • You should want to spend more time with your kids.
  • You should have more fun.
  • You should spend less time on technology.
  • You should have more sex.
  • You should want to have more sex.
  • You should laugh more.
  • You should lose weight.
  • You should exercise more.
  • You should drink less.
  • You should be happier.

Whatever the specific "shoulds" on your list, they always add up to the same "should": You should be better! The "should" police are here to tell you that--as you are--you are not good enough.

What are we afraid will happen if we stop "shoulding" all over ourselves? We have been taught, mistakenly, that if we don't "should" ourselves into action, we will become like those giant sloths that hang on trees—inert. And worse, if we don't "should" ourselves into being good, we won't be good! If not controlled, we would be unkind, ungrateful, un-generous, unproductive and every other "un" you can think of. Quite a vision of our basic nature. "Shoulding" all over ourselves actually strengthens our belief that—left to our own devices—we cannot be trusted.

Because so much of our behavior is driven by "should," we are losing our ability to distinguish what we really "want." We have been taught what we "should" want, but no longer know what we actually want, and often confuse the two. Out of touch with our own "wanting," we have lost a sense of intimacy with ourselves. We know who we are supposed to be, but not who we are.

To correct the "should"/"want" imbalance and bring us back into alignment with our true selves, I suggest the following practices:

  1. Ask yourself throughout the day "Am I doing this because I want to or because I should?" If it's because you "should," then "Why do I believe I should?" "What do I fear will happen if I don't do it?" Finally, notice if recognizing your choice as a "should" changes the choice itself, or the way it feels to carry out. Even if your actions remain unchanged, simply identifying your choice as a "should" or "want" is meaningful, and will help you know your true motivations and intentions and thus—know yourself.
  2. Set aside a period of time (at least an hour every day) as a "should-free" zone—a time when you only attend to that which you "want." If anything shows up as a "should," set it aside for later or let it go altogether. If no "want" shows up, that's fine as it may take some time for a "want" to actually form inside you. Remember, "want" itself has become atrophied, like an under-used muscle. As well, sometimes the "want" is just to do nothing, so listen for that "want" as well.

Through these practices, we often discover that we are not what we assumed (and were taught to believe). When we stop telling ourselves that we "should" be good, it turns out that much to our surprise, we are good. Our natural instinct is, in fact, to be compassionate and kind; being good simply feels good. When we stop forcing ourselves to be good (in order to check it off our "should-do" list), and instead, allow our inherent goodness to lead us into action, we feel nourished and full, simultaneously receiving the goodness that we offer. Goodness that emanates from "want" feels radically different (and better) than goodness that comes from "should."

We may also discover that we want some things that we could never have imagined wanting. One woman assured me that she would absolutely positively never "want" to exercise, and never do it if she didn't "should" herself into it. I gave her a challenge—to stop exercising until she genuinely wanted to. If the wanting didn't appear, she would simply return to exercising because she "should." Low and behold, 23 days later, a real desire to move showed up! It turned out that her body wanted to walk in the park—not on a treadmill as she had been doing for 25 years. And surprisingly, there was also a craving for swimming, something she had never considered. "Who is this person that actually wants to move, and swim of all things!" she exclaimed. It was an enlightening discovery—to realize that she was not someone who wanted to lie on the couch and eat bonbons all day. The act of suspending "should," and giving "want" a chance to emerge allowed her to meet her true self.

Sometimes "want" never comes. There are things we do in life strictly because we "should," and some are very important. I am not suggesting that we stop being responsible adults. However, when we do something because we "should," and we mindfully acknowledge that "should," then, we can offer ourselves compassion in the doing. We can take good care of ourselves, and honor the wisdom and strength of our discernment—to choose to do something even when we simultaneously do not want to do it. The choice is made mindfully, which, in and of itself, feels both loving and empowering. Even hard choices, when made in the light of awareness, are nourishing and satisfying, which is not the case when we are blindly obeying yet another "should."

Becoming aware of our relationship with "should" and "want" allows us to meet who we really are. Simultaneously, it gives us freedom. When we are aware of the forces that are driving our actions, we can decide how we "want" to live and break free from the tyranny of "should." We have been trained to believe in "should" and fear "want," but this conditioning, with a little practice, can also be undone and re-trained. Start offering your "should" police a day off here and there and get ready to meet someone you may never have known.

Copyright 2013 Nancy Colier.

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