Many of us spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how we should be feeling, what we should be doing, or what we should have done. Living in the land of shoulds usually makes us feel lost, wrong and/or bad. It is rare that a should thought is positive in nature. Most of our shoulds are a form of negative self-talk, a way we judge and put ourselves down.
The more time we spend reminding ourselves of the things we should be doing, the less motivated we become and the more anxious we feel about our lives. This is because we are not honoring how we DO feel and what we ARE doing now. Shoulds take us out of the present. We move away from what is true now and start contemplating the things we should have done in the past or the actions we should take in the future. Living in the past or the future limits our ability to access our true power. To transform your shoulds and ultimately feel more empowered in your life now, try the following:
First, take notice when you should yourself. We often don’t even notice when we make these self-criticisms and self-judgments.
If you think it might be helpful, write down your personal list of shoulds, so that you can bring more awareness to them, not so you can judge your judgments. Simply become aware with kindness; do not beat yourself up about your shoulds. Your list may look something like this:
- I should eat better.
- I should be happy in this relationship.
- I should have gone for a walk instead of eating that cookie.
After you have taken some time to bring awareness to the fact that you do should on yourself at times, and you have identified some of these shoulds, start to explore what is present around the should. You may want to write that down as well. As you write, try to use the kind of language you might use with a very good friend. Talk to yourself with compassion, love, and kindness. Your list may look similar to this:
- Ok, I’m not eating well lately. What is standing in my way? Do I feel like I need to punish myself? Why? Do I want the way I feel emotionally to match the way I feel in the body? Hmmm…Well, I am eating more junk food while I’m watching TV lately. What’s that all about? Maybe I’m feeling lonely and I watch TV to feel more connected and involved in life, but it just makes me feel more lonely and alone, so I eat to make myself feel better. That isn’t really working though, is it? (This can go on and on…)
- I’m just not happy in this relationship. What do I feel? What am I feeling right now? It is not wrong if need something different or something more right now. I feel really sad because I feel pressure to be happy and I’m not. Maybe I can explore that sadness at my own pace and try not to just push it down or hold it inside so much.
- Yes, I originally wanted to go for a walk, but I ate the cookie instead. Okay. Let’s not be hard on myself and just start over. I’m still a good person and I do love myself enough not to beat myself up for a slip. Breathe and let go.
Moving forward continue to notice the next time (and the many times after) you use a should. Notice. Pause. Slow down. Breathe deeply a few times. Bring yourself into the present. Give yourself permission to feel the way you do now – it isn’t wrong. Honor your true feelings.
It takes practice, learning to pause and not get dragged down by what seems to be wrong. When we put down the ideas of what life should be, we are free to truly see our life as it is now.
Kimberly Atwood is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and Midtown Manhattan, NYC. She specializes in working with people in their 20’s and 30’s dealing with eating disorders, intimacy issues, and related anxiety.