I should get my car washed. I should pay my bills. I should eat less. I shouldn't sleep so late on the weekend. Our lives are filled with shoulds. Shoulds keep us on the straight and narrow path to goodness. What are shoulds and where did they come from? Of course we can trace them back to the original holy set, the Ten Commandments, but I am guessing that shoulds arose long before that.
A should is created when a group of people agree about how the world is or might be. But this may differ from culture to culture and century to century. Democrats have different shoulds about the world than Republicans. Believers and non-believers differ about the shoulds that label us good or bad. The shoulds of your family and friends may be diametrically opposed to those of your neighbor.
Shoulds lead to procrastination! Putting things off is often the result of your conflict with a should. That is because shoulds are inflicted on us from outside. From our earliest years we are told what a good boy or girl should or should not do to gain approval from parent, teacher, family, community, and the world. We are not given the opportunity to challenge these instructions. When we do we may land up going our own way and marching to our own drummer, but might also be carrying a load of guilt or shame about breaking away from what is expected.
Who says I should wash my car, pay my bills, and eat less? You may say that you do, but where did the original rule come from and who laid it on you? Take a moment to think about some of the things you are procrastinating doing right now? Pick one.
Pretend that you are standing in front of your local ATM about to make a withdrawal. This time you are going to withdraw some information. Pretend that you are typing in this question instead of the amount of money: "How young was I when I decided that I would be a bad person if I didn't ___?" (Fill in the thing you are putting off) Take a deep breath and as you let it out a number will pop into your head.
As you know your age you may automatically know who told you it was wrong or bad. If not, do the ATM routine again asking for that information. Remember what was happening back then and how you felt when you were gifted with that should. Take a moment to acknowledge all the guilt or shame you have felt throughout your life each time you resisted. How often have you struggled with this and other shoulds handed down from generation to generation?
Please don't think I am telling you to drop all shoulds and rebel against everything. The result would create chaos and harm. Children need shoulds to help them conform to the expectations of their culture and to keep them safe. But once we are grownups we can assess the rules and decide which ones fit our beliefs and which don't.
Grownups can choose which expectations they want or choose to follow. Try this. Go back to the should you chose above. Say it out loud to yourself, "I should do my laundry." How do you feel? Is there tension in your stomach or throat? Do you feel ashamed of yourself for being lazy? Think about this for a moment. Do you want to do your laundry? If you don't then are you willing to take the consequences; after all you are an adult and responsible for your actions. Make a decision and say either "I choose to do my laundry," or "I choose to not do my laundry." Does that feel different when you say it out loud?
Most people find that when they trade in their shoulds for choose to or choose not to, they get rid of a load of guilt and shame. See if you can eliminate the words should, shouldn't, must, and have to from your life this week and notice what happens.
Gloria Arenson is a Licensed Marriage ad Family Therapist. She is the author of How to Stop Playing the Weighting Game, Born to Spend, Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing, Freedom At Your Fingertips, and Procrastination Nation.