How often have you judged yourself for not waking up early, going to bed late, or not making better food choices even though you should?
Many of us automatically talk down to ourselves about what we could or should have done better.
“’Shoulds’ are an inevitable part of everyone’s self-speak vocabulary, but this can be both a good thing and a bad thing,” according to Barbara Barna Abel, a media coach and the host of the Camera Ready & Abel podcast.
I met Barbara years ago in the iPEC life coaching training and have followed her ever since. Recently, she interviewed one of my favorite storytellers, Vivian Manning-Schaffel, on her podcast. Vivian wrote a piece called “How to Stop ‘Shoulding’ Yourself,” which inspired me to think a little bit more about the topic of “shoulding.”
I often encourage the women in my Beacons of Change community to be proud and celebrate their small wins instead of ruminating on what they should have done better. “Shoulding” yourself and others can bring shame and trigger a sense of “not enough-ness.”
Words have power, but more powerful than the words themselves is the energy we bring into them when we think and speak them out loud.
A mom can tell her child with a disappointed, judging, shaming tone, “You should be living life to the fullest now.” Or she could say with a lot of compassion, “You should be living life to the fullest now, and it makes me sad to see you struggle. How can I help?”
We need to be careful and selective with the words we choose.
But we can also be aware of the tone of our voice, body language, facial expressions and the intention behind the words—what I call energy.
I have always believed that our sacred responsibility as beacons is to offer a vibration of kindness and compassion to others and the world. Bringing compassion to “shoulding” can make it loving rather than shaming.
Approaching decision-making from a place of “want” and “choose” is more supportive than doing so from a place of “should” and “need.” This change in perspective can be a big energy-shifter.
When it comes to parenting, however, I have to admit that I can think of situations where a variation of “shoulding” serves a purpose.
“Shoulding” and parenthood
When my kids were young, “shoulding” was very present in my language. Like many other moms, I was controlling and overprotective, trying to rescue my kids and fix things for them.
As my children grew up, and with the help of a lot of inner work, I gradually shifted from being a helicopter mother to allowing them to find their own way, even if it meant making their own mistakes. Don’t get me wrong! I still have my moments of being overprotective and forgetting that they are adults now. But most of the time, I remember that it’s their journey, not mine.
However, there might be times when a variation of “shoulding” pushes our children to step out of their comfort zones as happened with our son.
After graduating from college, our son moved back home and into our basement until he could figure out his next step. A few years went by, and he became very comfortable. At 24, he would sleep in, wake up leisurely, have breakfast, go to the gym, work a little bit (not too much), and enjoy living at his parents’ house. Not that he didn’t contribute. He would buy groceries from time to time, unload the dishwasher here and there, and take the trash out on occasion. But he didn’t have to pay rent. Food was always ready in the fridge. The house was clean and maintained.
My husband was the one who came up with the idea (which I resented immediately) that we were enabling him. The mama bear in me refused to agree to my husband’s revolutionary idea: “We need to kick him out of the house. Otherwise, he will never pursue his dream to move to New York.” We lived in Atlanta at that time. Getting on his feet and moving to New York was scary for our son even though we all knew that he should and could do it.
Thank God my husband persuaded me to change my mind. I remember that conversation with our son as one of the hardest conversations we have ever had. After reminding him of his incredible talent and inner strengths, we simply said, “You have six months to leave. In six months, we’re renting out the basement.”
We never rented out the basement, but the week after that conversation, he got a full-time job, started saving money, and, within six months, he was on a plane to New York and on his way to creating a new life. It was only a few more months before he received an excellent job offer and began a fulfilling career. Today, our son is super successful at work, happily married, and loving his life in New York.
Years later, he thanked us for kicking him out of the house and “shoulding” him to step into his destiny and potential.
I’m not sure that the conversation we had with our son came across as a compassionate one, but it was definitely driven by love. Pushing our children to take responsibility for their lives can be hard for parents; that’s what we call “tough love,” but we only do it because we know they should and could.
As Barbara Barna Abel says, “It’s just stopping and being honest with yourself about your resistance. Often, what gets stuck in the ‘shoulds’ are things that we’re not good at. There are things you may have been putting off because they aren’t things you really want to do or are things that you may find difficult. Ask yourself: If I knew I couldn’t fail, success was assured, and money was no object, what would happen? This gets you to open up in terms of possibility and alternate solutions.”
I’ll leave you with that very question: If you knew you couldn’t fail, success was assured, and money was no object, what would you do differently right now?
In closing, Barbara says that redirecting her “should” self-talk freed her up to be even more productive. “Letting go of resentment is very personally empowering,” she says. “It really starts to switch the energy from ‘should’ to choice.” And who wouldn’t enjoy more choices?