How "I Should" and "By Now" Trap Us in Pain
It is time to break out of self-loathing. Here's how.
Posted November 20, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
“I just think I should be in a committed relationship by now. I’m 27 years old.”
“I should have figured out my career path by now. I’m 36 years old.”
“I stayed home this weekend and felt like such a loser.”
No matter how many Pinterest quotes encourage us to follow our own path in our own time, the illusion of the perfect timeline remains. By 25, careers should be solidified and pointed in a focused direction with consistent, incremental growth. By 22 or 30 or 40 (depending on whom you ask), a person should be in the ideal long-term romantic relationship that will ultimately lead to marriage, the preferred outcome. Hobbies should be well defined, finances understood and prepared, and gym attendance sparkling. One’s social calendar should be packed with a variety of interesting outings attended with a tight-knit group of friends who are both exciting and steady.
While we’re at it, our past struggles should be sorted through. Body image issues should disappear with adolescent acne, and the trappings of adulthood should bolster self-esteem and render past insecurities irrelevant. Childhood traumas should be long forgotten, minimized by the passage of time. Relationships with family members should reflect enlightened amicability. By now, clients tell me, things should be better.
And yet they come to therapy shame-faced and panicked, explaining that they’ve missed the boat. The alarm is ringing in their life and they’ve clearly overslept. Their lives don’t match the image of who they should be by now. They hold their lives up to their ideal image and find it wanting. They tell me about the career that isn’t quite as prestigious as they imagined, the demoralizing online dating landscape, and the lingering insecurities that they cannot seem to shake. Many fall into the well-known but alluring trap of judging their own complex lives against others’ social media posts. They live in a constant state of comparison and as far as they are concerned, always fall short.
What happens when we look a bit closer
Nevermind nuance and complexity. Nevermind the fact that most successful people weave their setbacks into the story of their career progression as triumphs over adversity, when in the moment, they felt lost. Nevermind that a person’s dream career at 22 is unlikely to be their dream career at 40. Dreams and priorities shift and change, and careers respond to new opportunities, circumstances, skills, and needs. Nevermind the fact that most people shift their health habits over a lifetime to accommodate their schedules, their changing bodies, and their evolving sense of self. Nevermind the wide range of romantic and sexual realities, each bringing its own strengths and struggles. Nevermind that friendships yield to new life stages, boundaries, and expectations. Nevermind that insecurities tag along until they’re intentionally addressed. Nevermind the absolute falsehood of the friend with the perfect life.
While time is an excellent healer for many things, beliefs can set in place at strange angles, like a poorly healed bone, leaving us in pain and struggling to function if we don’t work to correct it. The scars of childhood run deep, and adults walk around with beliefs formed in childhood about who they should be and how they should feel. That conditioning must be processed and challenged and alternatives learned and properly integrated. Time itself, the arrival of adulthood, is not a salve that heals wounds.
The cycle of despair
This panoply of self-abnegating thoughts led by “should” and “by now,” yield despair, self-loathing, shame, and helplessness that carve themselves into neurological grooves. And how do we respond? We berate ourselves for a lack of strength, discipline, and focus. We inflate and amplify career setbacks and strip context from our memories. We negate evidence of progress that feels too slow or insignificant, instead spotlighting perceived failures. We yell at ourselves again and again, pointing to the person next to us who has achieved success in life in an area that feels elusive. We dwell in our own self-loathing as punishment for failing to meet our standards. That punishment, we’re sure, is deserved.
But as the quote goes, “You cannot hate yourself into a version of yourself that you love.” Many come to therapy because they’ve tried this method for months or years with no success. Self-loathing only begets more self-loathing, but we worry that if we cut ourselves slack, we will slack off.
What do we do instead?
So how do we overcome the drumbeat of “should” and “by now” thinking? Slowly, over time. We learn to carve new neural pathways in the form of new thoughts and beliefs. We introduce self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and empathy. We talk about the patterns of childhood that continue to haunt and limit them and what legacies they want to bring forward with them. We learn new ways to interact with loved ones, be they family members or friends, to build healthier, more sustainable relationships that energize rather than deplete. We talk about curating what we consume on social media. We read books. We reclaim our imperfect selves and remind ourselves that healing is the job of an adult, for children are ill-equipped to process much of what they learn. It is the process of finding and defining and refining the self that is the task of adulthood. “By now” is a destructive myth, one that we can carry around at age 20, 40, 60, or 80.
How about we replace “I should get a better job” with “I wonder what another position could feel like?” Why not replace the phrase “I should have this by now,” to “This is what I have for now. What would I like to work toward?” Let’s smother a black-and-white world in grey, understanding that only in the grey can we embrace both contentment and ambition.
The work of dismantling these lies is slow, but it is undoubtedly worth it.