I should make more money.
I should have moved out by now.
I should be married.
I should have had kids already.
I should have a better-trained dog.
I should have a cleaner house.
I should be less anxious.
I should be over this.
I should be living my dreams.
I should have a nicer house.
I should have moved up at work by now.
I should know what I’m doing with my life.
I should . . .
Sound familiar? It’s a constant refrain that runs through my head and my life. Over and over, I begin to think about where I am now and where I thought I should be at this point in my life. I instantly feel small, dejected, hopeless, and ashamed. Why am I still making just above minimum wage when I hold a college degree? Why is it so hard to look for a better job? Why am I still living at home? Why do I still struggle with anxiety? Why am I still hesitant to follow my dreams?
My instant response when I feel that shame is numbness, depression, and a burning need (fear, rather) to change things now—before it’s too late. Before I veer too far from the path I should be following.
I descend into depression as I try to bully myself to add things to my schedule that I don’t want to do but feel I need to in order to get to where I wanted to be or felt I should be at this point in my life. As I follow these tasks every day, resentment builds. I no longer have time for the things I do want to do, and rather than feeling free and able to follow my passions, I now feel short on time and as if a task driver is standing over me, urging me from one task to another until it’s time to get in bed, fall asleep, and wake up just to do it all over again.
I wondered to myself the other day: all these “shoulds” . . . whose voice are they? Where are they coming from? The more I mulled it over, the more I realized most of these came from society’s expectations . . . and some of these expectations are still outdated and belong to an older generation in a time where life moved differently. Growing up I heard things like, “Wow, he still lives at home? I heard her son is twenty-eight now” and “Why don’t you get a better job where you make more money?” or even “If you go to college, you’ll secure a well-paying job afterward.”
The problem is we live in a very different time and society. Most young people I know are still living at home or crammed into an apartment with three other people. Most young people I talk to feel the same pressure of “shoulds” and a sense of mingled optimism and desire to follow their dreams mixed with the guilt and despair of not being where they feel they should be or even having a clear picture of what direction to follow.
We have so many choices today, and such high costs, coupled with great competitiveness for jobs. At the same time, I suspect this comparison of where you are now to where you believed you should be is something that occurs in any age and any generation.
Yet the factors we try to achieve to reassure ourselves that we are good enough—that we are where we should be—rest only on the surface. Sure, they may inform first impressions, to an extent, but talk to anyone face-to-face, let them see your heart and spirit, and suddenly all the “shoulds” don’t really matter.
We all have people in our lives to whom the “shoulds” do matter, of course. But what baffles me is how often the “shoulds” live in our own heads and are self-imposed. Whose standard are we trying to reach? And why? So we can prove to ourselves we’ve made it? That we aren’t dumb or lazy? That we fit in? That we can follow our dreams? That we can be successful? That we’re not losers?
Because what is often the current underlying the “shoulds” is the idea of “I’m not good enough.” I feel if I achieve a certain goal or catch up to where I “should” be, it will prove I’m not lazy, useless, dumb, helpless, weak . . . you name it.
In doing so, I forget something very important.
The “shoulds” I’m trying to measure up to, and the life path I’m trying very hard to keep my life veering too far from, are not my own. They don’t describe who I am or what I need or even what’s best for me. They are the “shoulds”—the ideals—of someone else’s life.
But not of mine.
And every time I try to get to where I “should” be, I’m trying to live someone else’s life. No wonder it doesn’t work! It’s like trying to squeeze into a set of shoes two sizes too small! And don’t we do this constantly in other areas of life, such as when we squeeze into a pants size that no longer honors where we are in this moment?
So what do we do? How can we get from being driven by “shoulds” to living our own life and letting go of that ideal or even that dream?
This is one I’m still figuring out, and it’s incredibly difficult. For myself, I’ve been going back to the things that work best for me: journaling, meditating, speaking mantras, and watching or reading materials by others who have dealt with this same situation.
I’ve noticed often when a new idea emerges, it takes a long time for it to really sink in. My head knows it’s true, but it doesn’t yet believe it. If you’ve been following the “shoulds” all your life and feel uncertain about even contemplating letting go of them (I know I do!), allow for a lot of time to absorb the new ideas above before expecting change on a bigger scale. That’s where I’m at right now.
Challenge!: Identify the “shoulds” in your life. Write a list of what you believe you “should” be doing and where you believe you “should” be at this stage in your life. If possible, identify where the “shoulds” come from. Next, write a list of what you want to do, as well as a definition of what success means to you. Last, pick one technique for the week that can help you better absorb the idea that the “shoulds” in your life don’t actually describe your life and were never meant to pertain to your life. These could be techniques like journaling about the “shoulds,” dialoging with them, repeating mantras that help you release them, or spending time meditating. Other ideas could include trying to live a week without “shoulds” or watching this video from amandaoutside, where she very beautifully dives into why we feel stuck in life (which is often when the “shoulds” yell loudest) and how to approach the feeling differently. She offers several techniques of her own, but the best approach is the one that works for you. Play around, be patient, be gracious to yourself, and share your insights, thoughts, and discoveries below!