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Your Career and the Tyranny of the Shoulds

Five steps to remove guilt and bring more joy to your work.

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing a wonderful show, “How to Draw a Nekkid Man”, presented by storyteller Tricia Rose Burt. Alternately hilarious, pithy, and poignant, Tricia consistently speaks her truth. She conveys a vulnerability and openness about her experiences compelling listeners to consider how these truths apply to their own lives. What struck me most about her presentation was the opening where she discussed her college years and early career choices all packaged in one word: Should. Here’s a clip:

Notice how many times Tricia uses the word “should”—whether it was what college she should go to, what she should major in, what career to pursue, etc.

I think this struck a chord with me because it is a word I hear all the time from my students and clients. Here are just a few of the shoulds* I hear:

  • “I do well in science and everyone says I should become a doctor.”
  • “I shouldn’t take risks in school; it’s better to get all A’s than take a class where I might struggle.”
  • “My parents say I should become a ___________”
  • “My friends are all getting jobs in __________; shouldn’t I do the same?”
  • “I should take a practical major; the fun majors aren’t going to lead anywhere.”
  • “I should take this job offer because it pays more than the other.”
  • “Someone said I should follow my passion, but what if I fail?”

German psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1885-1952) had a phrase for this: “the tyranny of the should.” She viewed shoulds as dividing our personalities into two selves: an ideal self and a real self. When we don’t live up to the ideal self, we are split and out inner critic comes out.

Albert Ellis wrote about the “musts” in our lives which create demands on ourselves and others and often only serve as a source of anxiety, guilt, shame, depression, self-hatred, and anger. We put ourselves down when we fail to live up to our shoulds, and we get angry with others when they don’t live up to our shoulds. When we place unfulfilled shoulds on our job and workplace, we end up unhappy at work as well.

A should represents a sort of bargain with ourselves and with the world. If I behave in a certain way then things will work out well. And if you (the workplace) do what you should do, then life will go more smoothly. Until, of course, it doesn’t. Because the bargain isn’t necessarily based on reality or the truth, certainly not your personal truth. The bargain is likely based on something someone told you or a form of magical thinking you created to feel better in a situation.

These unthinking and unquestioned rules create a split within ourselves: when we don’t live up to our shoulds, we begin judging ourselves and our inner critic takes over. Not much fun. Our shoulds take away a lot of our power and create poor boundaries between ourselves and others. They also can destroy any joy you might otherwise find in a situation.

So let’s look at you for a moment. What shoulds do you have around your job and career? Here are some possibilities:

  • I should be making more money.
  • I should be using my talents.
  • I should have been promoted by now.
  • I should be better able to manage my family and work schedule.
  • I should have a better title.
  • My work should provide meaning in my life at all times.
  • I have a _____________ degree: I should have received better job offers.
  • I should work in _____________.

Any of this sound familiar? What other shoulds are you dealing with? Try creating a list about your workplace and the shoulds you have connected to that.

  • “My workplace should ___________”

So how do you fight the tyranny of the shoulds?

You’ve already started by simply identifying them. Pay attention throughout the day to the number of times you think or say the word should. After that:

1. Take a moment to consider a simple question: is it true? Is this should a true statement, or just a thought? Some may be outright lies, others half-truths, and others you might fully believe are true for you. If they are not true, what is more true?

2. Change your language. Instead of saying, “I should get a better job”, say “I want to get a better job.” Do you hear/feel the difference in those two sentences? The first one sounds compelled or forced against the will; the second sounds more like a choice or a goal. Or try this, “I choose to get a better job.” Hear the difference? You're more likely to take action based on that statement.

3. Ask yourself who or what was the source of this should. Did it come from your friends or your family? Maybe from your colleagues at work? What was the intention? To keep you safe; to help you make a decision? Often shoulds start out as good intentions or ideas; they just go awry when they become rules. Do you need to follow this rule anymore?

4. Consider a reworking of the should. Instead of focusing on whether you should have been promoted by now, for example, focus on what you want to do in the next few months to better demonstrate your value to your company—or find a new employer where you will be more appreciated. Talk to your co-workers: have you been singled out for lack of promotion or is this simply the way the company works?

5. Finally, ask yourself if these shoulds are making you happy. Do they create joy in your life? If not, what would give you greater peace of mind or joy? How could removing some of these shoulds make you enjoy your work or your life better? What could you do differently?

Shoulds are not always a bad thing, particularly when they compel us to behave in a kinder manner. Fulfilling a should through volunteering or donating to a cause can help us feel good about ourselves. But when your shoulds are the source of unhappiness, guilt, frustration, etc., it’s time to examine them and create a new way of life.

Toward the end of the video,Tricia Rose Burt says, “I realize I’m not just in the wrong job or the wrong marriage-- I’m in the wrong life. I don’t want to do what other people want me to do, or think I should do anymore. All I want is to make art.” Tricia Rose Burt overcame her shoulds by learning “How To Draw a Nekkid Man.” Maybe that's where you could start.

*The word “shoulds” isn’t really a word, as my spell-checker keeps reminding me. But for the sake of easier reading, I have chosen not to place quotes around it each time. May my English teachers forgive me.

©2017 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter. Check out my just-released new edition of You Majored in What? Creating Your Path from College to Career!

Photo credit: "Should What " by Sookie / Flickr Creative Commons