We all live by a deeply rooted list of shoulds, rules that guide our behaviour and lives. In this post, these “should” rules are differentiated between the ones that are focused on the Present and Future (e.g. “I should not ask for what I need, because I will not get it anyway”) and the ones focused on the Past (e.g. “I should not have said this”).
Should focused on our Present
We have meticulously formed our inner rule system throughout our whole lives. Many of these should were directly or indirectly dictated to us during childhood. Such should can be related to communication, intimacy, what is needed to gain others’ approval, as well as ethical values.
For instance, children growing up in abusive environments may have internalized beliefs that they cannot really voice their opinion, because this can result in them being ridiculed or not listened to anyway; thus forming an inner rule “I should better avoid to speak up my mind”, that further leads to them being passive in their communication style in adult life.
Children faced with neglect when they asked for affection and care, therefore later believing “I should not ask for what I need”. Another example is the child for whom parental approval is directly linked to good school performance, later to be translated into “I should never fail because others will not accept me then”, which lays the foundation for perfectionistic tendencies.
Other rules are developed and evolved later on in life, through relationship experiences, professional opportunities, friendships. We constantly observe our surrounding, absorb information, filter it accordingly- that’s how we learn and grow.
But not all “should” statements are actually functional. They often may control and limit you from moving forward into progress, like the examples stated above. We abide by a set of rules by how we should be acting, therefore often refraining from seizing opportunities that may disconfirm our beliefs.
We may sometimes be enslaved by this belief system. For instance, if you have learned that you should not voice your opinion, this can result in a series of failed, even abusive relationships, where you do not dare to express your boundaries and thus allow others to dominate you and even hurt you. It is only when you start breaking free of your limiting beliefs and rules, that you can see productive change and transformation.
What are your own should rules? There can be quite a long list, but it may be useful and interesting to note them down! You may even be surprised at your own results…
What happens if a should rule is not complied with? For example, think of the statement "I should be better than this". Or else, what? What would happen if you do not manage to be better than this?
Then, you are not satisfied with yourself. You do not deserve good outcomes. You disappoint yourself. You can fill in any other potential outcome here.
What we discover, is that you can further create negative emotions and thoughts about yourself by repeating this should in your mind. Yes, it can be motivating and inspiring to think what you should be better doing to yourself- but that's about it. Dwelling on it endlessly is unproductive and keeps you back from actually doing better- because you are too busy ruminating about it.
Should focused on our Past
Except of the sets of shoulds that come from our Past and dictate our behaviour in the Present, there are also all those shoulds that are aimed towards our Past and keep us stuck there, instead of being able to accept whatever the Present reality is.
We not only have shoulds about ourselves, but about our interactions with others as well. Have you ever considered how much time and energy you have spent so far in thinking “I should/ shouldn’t have done/said/felt that”?
Those shoulds carry within them an expectation of reality manifesting differently than how it actually did and does. There’s this popular saying, “Expectation is the root of all heartache”. Why? Because it denies our current reality and poses a resistance to accepting and experiencing reality exactly as it is, and then moving forward and making appropriate adjustments if necessary.
Think of a recent negative experience or argument you have had with a loved one. In hindsight, you most probably have had lots of thoughts about what you should and shouldn’t have said and done, and equally many about how they should have acted and responded towards you.
Yet you didn’t do what you should have. And they didn’t do what you think they should have.
What does this teach us?
Reality actually unfolds regardless of our much-valued rules and expectations. It is independent of them and we absolutely cannot control it by reciting what should have been done instead of what actually happened.
You cannot control anything other than the Present moment and anyone other than yourself.
By holding on to these shoulds, what you’re actually doing is you remove yourself from the Present reality and pull back into the Past, with the risk of getting stuck and trapped there.
When you are faced by any situation, the choice is to either accept it fully and surrender to it, or decide you want to take steps towards changing it, or leave it altogether.
Sticking with should statements deny you the opportunity of Acceptance. If you give up on them, a fresher perspective will come along sooner or later. By denying how things are and proclaiming how we would want them to be instead, they don’t change. We risk getting chained onto some illusion of how reality should be instead, and deny ourselves the opportunity to see it for what it is now. The latter allows us to be motivated about changes we would like to bring forth.
You/they should have done this/that instead. Yet you didn’t.
Can you do something about it Now?
You can Learn from this experience.
What is the Lesson, your gained profit?
Consider why things didn’t unfold as you now regard optimal. In what emotional state were you? Why you couldn’t act like you now think you should? What about the other?
What actually happened? What insights can you gain from this?
Remember that everything happens exactly as it does, because we always act according to the resources, knowledge and emotional state that we currently have available. So in a way, you did the best you could at that given moment. This approach can help foster more compassion about yourself (and the other), and lessen the discomforting feelings of guilt that may be augmented the more you repeat the “should” of the past.
Challenge your belief: Why do you think you should have acted in X way? What does it mean for you that you didn’t? How can you avoid it in the future?
Attempt acting differently, in an improved way, from now on.
Move on! The Past is the past for a reason- it is gone. We can learn from it, but obsessing over shoulds of the past keeps us stuck there.
Negative consequences about your Relationship to the Other
Now let’s move to our expectations of how the other should have acted towards us during that afore-mentioned argument. Do you realize that these cognitions actually fuel your frustration and resentment about them?
Just like You, the other is also not perfect. They may say something hurtful or inconsiderate during an argument, probably triggered emotionally by your actions just like you were by theirs. You had a heated interaction that did not turn out optimally.
But ruminating on what they should have better said or done:
Keeps you stuck in the Past
Keeps you away from forgiveness and reconciliation with them
Keeps you away from a more balanced and compassionate perspective
Keeps your focus away from the Present situation, which is all that matters anyway. What can be done Now?
What if this should regards something that has repeated more than once in the past, you expressed it to them, and it keeps happening? Then your frustration related to “they shouldn’t have acted like this” is understandably growing bigger.
Consider whether this “should” may actually touch on one of your personal boundaries.
Depending on the gravity you place on this should, it is up to you to decide whether you will aim for one (more) discussion with the intention to clarify what it is that really bothers you, or whether you will let it be.
Notice that both those actions are focused on the Future (what you will do from now on) and not on the Past (what should have happened instead, why so, and so on).
Negative emotions associated with should
What are you gaining from repeating to yourself how you should have acted instead?
You actually shower yourself with an avalance of negative emotions, the most prominent ones being guilt and shame.
Both guilt and shame are emotions that can keep us paralyzed, unable to make a decision about how to proceed. They can have detrimental effects on us, since self-punishment and loathing are built on guilt and shame.
You dwell on your mistake, ruminate on something that is done, you cry over spilled milk, feeling worse and worse about yourself, for not being a better version of You in the Past!
You deny reality, guilt is crippling you because it sends you straight into a downward spiral of remorse , resentment, misery, anxiety about the potential devastating consequences of your action. By dwelling on your past, you catastrophize about the Future. You feel bad, and think even more bad thoughts. What good can come out of this, really?
What’s the use? What done is done!
How much more self-blame and self-punishment do you wish to impose on yourself? What’s your limit on self-inflicted guilt?
Well there’s a definite way to stop this downfall and its debilitating effects on your self-worth. Drop the should!
Instead, focus on your next steps, with compassionate wisdom of your weaker yesterdays.
You only have Today, and the goal is a better Tomorrow. Yesterday’s gone and it’s never coming back.
You should remember this! (… or else, what..?! 😊 )