Don’t “Should” on Yourself!: The Life You Should Have, The Life You Choose series

My friend Jim had the kind of smile you could warm yourself by. The wrinkles around his eyes testified to the years he spent cultivating joy and expressing it openly. He had an effortless peace to him that put everyone at ease, a good trait since he was an Episcopal priest. When I knew him, he spent most of his Sundays visiting different churches, filling in for other clergy while they were on vacation. For longer periods of time, he would guide congregations through interim periods when they were between clergy. Jim could calm even the most disquieted and chaotic congregations as they worked through the challenges of transitions in leadership.

What I came to understand about Jim was that his peaceful nature and joy did not come from a place of naivete but a realism gained from lived experiences. He reminded me of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, though they had seen horrible things they became two of the most joyful men on earth. Jim shared the same sort of unique positive energy with those lucky enough to know him. 

One day we were discussing expectations and challenges of ministry and a smile bloomed on Jim’s face as he said to me, “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself!” eyes twinkling.

We begin to consider new paths or possibilities, dreaming of new projects or jobs, places to live or even people to become, but then we list a myriad of reasons why we shouldn’t. There are family norms to follow, societal expectations we must conform to, or the fear of judgment from friends and peers. We stereotype and pigeonhole ourselves into corners, tying our own hands and getting in our own way.

All too often we express these limits by saying we “can’t” do something that, in reality, is within our capability. The importance we place on these rules and norms becomes so large that we view them as prohibitive rather than informative: because we believe we shouldn’t do something, we then tell ourselves we cannot do it. We limit ourselves and block paths of opportunity due to the authority we have given to these voices. We firmly believe we shouldn’t take a step for fear of running afoul of other’s rules and expectations.

When I was a kid, my parents came across an idea that became a part of our family culture. When a negative voice played in our minds, they would say, “erase that tape.” We have recorded certain voices in our minds that put boundaries around and give structure to our lives. For instance, a parent’s voice saying “don’t touch the hot stove!” We give these voices authority in our decision-making processes because we believe they protect us in some way.

When a new possibility opens to us, we begin to play those tapes. What would those voices say? How would they warn me? How would they try to protect me? What wisdom might they give me? How would they judge me?

We record these voices in our minds either because they have served us well in the past or because it comes from someone we love and trust. When we see someone we perceive to be better than us in some way we watch, listen, and learn from them and their behavior. Some of these influences taught us directly while many others model for us what we think is the correct or more preferred way to do something. 

There are others, however, that we record out of sense of duty or obligation. We feel a duty to listen to these voices and obey them. During one of my retreats, a woman shared with the group that the voice she heard most in her head was her father. She then said, “I didn’t like him very much and he gave terrible advice.” Upon further reflection, she realized she had the power to stop paying attention to his voice in her head and start placing a higher value on the opinions and ideas of people she trusted.

Whose voices do you hear in your head when you’re considering a change or making a decision? Do those voices still give you good guidance or is it time to let another come to the microphone?

Then there are the perceived “shoulds” of culture and society. We belong to different groups defined by race, gender, class, geography, education, sexuality, and more. Each group carries a set of unspoken rules for how people belonging to said group should and should not act. If you read my reflection, “Why did I do that?” you’ll recognize that the woman in the story about the jacket believed women her age couldn’t wear certain styles of clothing. How many times have you been on social media and seen a post or read a magazine with an article about “What women over 50 shouldn’t be wearing.”

There are countless (ridiculous) rules we place around gender that begin at an early age. I could write an entirely different diatribe about “boy” toys and “girl” toys and how even fast food restaurants label kids meals in this way. There are no boy toys or girl toys, there are just toys. But when we label them, we send a message to children what toys they should and should not play with.  Boys play with rough and tumble things: matchbox cars and toy blasters. Girls play with delicate and genteel things: makeup Barbies and mini purses with plastic jewels.

Boys grow up to be men who hide tears, trading them for rage, because tears are weak and for girls whereas anger is manly and testosterone driven. Girls grow up to be women trying to be the perfect stay-at-home mom while also working a high power job that demands 10-12 hour days of her, then she feels shame and guilt at not being able to “do it all.”

Sometimes the shoulds of our lives feed us and guide us in good directions. When we’re tempted to allow ourselves to be distracted from positive goals we set for ourselves, we might feel the gentle nudge in our minds from a friend whom we know would keep us on task to stay focused enough to reach our goals. These are the motivating forces that help us become what we fear we are incapable of becoming, that push us to reach beyond our expectations and beliefs to accomplish greater things than we could imagine. These are also the forces that tell us to slow down when we’re doing too much and say “no” when our desire to please others puts us in a state near to burn out.

Other times these should beat us down and take away our energy. They tell us we aren’t worthy or good enough and we should give up. They tell us to “stay in our lane” and not veer too far from the norm. They fence us in into boundaries that were designed for other people’s comfort, not our own mental or physical health.

No matter who you are, you have these voices. No one is an island so no one is immune to family, social, cultural, or internal pressures telling us what is and is not acceptable, what is and is not possible. 

Next time you’re faced with a decision, slow down and tune into these voices. Where did they come from? What are the true source of these shoulds? Do you value those sources? Is it time to put some away…for good? Liberate yourself to make better, healthier choices by taking the words of my dear friend, Jim, to heart: “Don’t should on yourself!”

If you didn’t read my first post in this series, check it out here: “I can’t wear that!”. You’ll learn more about “The Life You Choose” and the ways weighing the “coulds,” “shoulds,” and “wants,” will give you better clarity in your decision making.

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