If Joe Blow says to me, “Danita, you should lose some weight.”, I feel several things: “That hurts. I’m ashamed. You have no right to say that to me.” I may hold on to these feelings for awhile, but I can shake them off, albeit with some effort. Unfortunately, the voice I can’t walk away from is my own. In the echo chamber of my mind any “should” is multiplied and echoed exponentially in my thoughts. Whatever the should I’m placing on myself it soon explodes into the big SHOULD. Beneath the weight of this demand on myself, I suffer from a painful pressure on my psyche. I can become vicious in my attack on myself and the adjectives aren’t pretty: worthless, loser, hopeless, powerless, stupid,…. you get the idea. Can this negative cycle be broken?
There is some good news! As I get older I am better at fighting the big SHOULD. My goal is to love myself as I make changes, not withhold my self respect and self love until I accomplish my goals. If I think I’ll be ok when I can run 5 miles, or lose 10 pounds or get my house perfectly in order, and I then withhold positive regard and love for myself until I meet these goals, I really set myself up to lose. It’s a what comes first the chicken or the egg type of question. So what’s the bogey man in should? A “should” implies that this is what I need to do to be a good moral person; it is a moral failure if I don’t do what I “should” do.
Isn’t the better question “What do I want for myself? There is a difference between “I should lose 10 pounds.” and “I want to lose 10 pounds.” It feels different because the locus of control with “want” is internal, and the locus of control with “should” is really from the outside. Someone, somewhere has decided that these are the goals I “should” set for myself. It’s almost impossible to eradicate all the “shoulds” in our world. There is no lack of experts who claim to know what should be done to meet the goals set by every man, woman and child.
Does “shoulding” ourselves work? Are we motivated to do what we think we should do? It is more likely “shoulding” sets us up to fail. We simply can’t accomplish all we think we should. Feeling like a failure or feeling shame aren’t feelings that support motivation and change. I can’t shame myself into being successful. If I believe I am flawed and defective because of who I am, how can I allow myself to succeed at any goal I set for myself? That does not compute! Catching myself in the act of “shoulding” requires me to be vigilant about what b.s., or big SHOULD, I may be allowing to fester in my thoughts. I can replace these thoughts with more positive messages and self-compassion. I used to think if I didn’t obsess about my weight I would weigh 300 pounds and it was the “shoulds” that were keeping me from this fate. Once I was able to stop flagellating myself for not being perfect, i was able to motivate myself with self-love and compassion. And today I don’t weigh 300 pounds and I don’t think I should weigh 125 either.
What I tell myself matters. I have to weed the “shoulds” out of my life, pull them up by the roots and let my garden grow.