I should do this.
I should do that.
I should look like this.
I should be more _____. I should be less _____.
I should weigh this much.
I should make this much money.
I should do yoga, eat well, run five miles daily and be promoted.
May I use my 4 years olds' favorite phrase, "Hey poopy face, stop should-ing all over yourself." (The poopy face part is hers.)
Alright, goals are one thing. Should-ing all over yourself is another. Goals and goals seeking done right can create a feeling of accomplishment, self confidence and result in a valued outcome. Should-ing is rooted in judgement, comparison and results in negative self-talk. Often it is the list of things or attributes we believe others want from us. No matter the origin, all these "shoulds" have weight, slow us down as should thinking becomes habitual.
For those around you, your shoulds can have a negative impact. When you speak in shoulds, they will often be heard not as vague musings. Rather your shoulds are heard as intentions with varied levels of commitment. From this there are two pernicious unintended consequences;
First, unrealistic expectations take root. Your long list of shoulds is setting up an unrealistic standard of expectations. If you expect all those shoulds of yourself, people in your orbit may infer that you expect the same of them.
Second, you come off as unreliable. The longer your list of shoulds gets without clear progress, people begin to add to the end of your should statements three little words - "but you won't". If you constantly verbalize I should this, I should that and then don't follow through you run the risk of setting yourself up as appearing unreliable. "Yeah I should but I won't."
What to do about it?
Break the cycle of "should-ing all over yourself" with a few deliberate practices. These can each stand alone or be combined. You choose the speed.
Practice #1: Stop using the "s" word. Please stop. Replace it.
You may have heard the directive to 'stop apologizing'. If an apology is not genuine, appropriate or necessary, why are you staying "Sorry"? Apply the same to the other pesky s-word should. Use should sparingly.
Instead of "should" try this inserting any of these - "want to", "will", "plan to" and the sneaky potential truth, "won't". Hear the difference:
I should learn to delegate more effectively. ... becomes... I want to learn to delegate more effectively.
I should spend more time reading with my children... becomes... I will spend more time reading with my children.
I should eat less ice cream... becomes... (for me anyway) I won't eat less ice cream.
If you can't form a true statement using an alternative maybe it isn't even something worthy of your mental energy. Removing "should" opens the door to being clear and declarative about your actual intention and sets the stage to put a plan into motion. Words are generative.
Practice #2: Be critical and sort the shoulds to get to the "I wills." Tools Required: pen, post-its, alone time.
This practice puts the practice in practical by radically clarifying the difference between helpful goals and harmful shoulds. If you have a long lists of shoulds that play on repeat in your mind, this activity is for you. Grab a pen and a pad of post-it notes. Find a place where you can spread out and be alone. Bring a note pad to store your finished product. Here are the steps:
Inventory. One by one, list out the shoulds. One should per post-it note. Go for volume to make sure you get the entire list out of your brain onto paper.
Pause and look at the stack. Sit with what you think about the stack of post-its for a few minutes. Wow... lots of them right? Lots of shoulds to get off your back.
Sort #1: Aligned to my goals? Divide your stack into two piles. In the first pile put those shoulds that are aligned to YOUR GOALS. The other pile is everything else.
Sort #2: Scaling. Start with the shoulds that are aligned to your goals, pick a three point scale and sort them again. The scale could be level of importance to self - ie. Very Important to ME, Important to ME, Somewhat Important to ME. If the should is not at least somewhat important, put it in the everything else pile.
Step back and assess: You now should have four piles (below). Is there anything to add or takeaway? Duplicates? Things you can toss now? Are most of your shoulds in a category (fitness, work, etc) or internal as opposed to external.
Goal aligned very important shoulds.
Goal aligned important shoulds.
Goal aligned somewhat important shoulds.
Everything else - non-goal aligned shoulds and less important shoulds.
Define a timeframe for which you want to set intentions - a month, a quarter etc. This will give you a boundary to work within for the next steps.
Evaluate and edit, one by one. These are your shoulds, so you can rewrite them, tear them up, burn them. Working down the piles, as listed above (5), look at each post-it. Consider each one individually. For your timeframe (6), determine what you will do and when you will do it. Add those details to the post-it note. If there is no action for the timeframe, set it aside in a pile for later. This will be a new 5th pile (v).
Select and set your intentions. This may be the toughest step yet because time is finite. Of the items that you identified action for the next timeframe, choose the lucky few. Which of these will you pour you energy into? Now you have your set of "I wills" for now and later.
Acknowledge and accept. You've done a ton of work. You gave each should a look and made important intentional choices. You aligned to your goals. Acknowledge the work you've done. It is not easy yet it will yield a better result than ping ponging from one should to the next. You can honestly say, "Yes, I considered ABC and decided I'm doing XYZ instead, because it is of higher value to me now."
Monitor. Collect your post-its, put them on a white board or in a notebook. Wherever you can come back and reflect on your progress. Leave room for things to not go as planned and assess fairly why it might have turned out that way. Celebrate each success for yourself.
Practice #3: Examine the motivation - is this should mine or yours?
We pick up on clues in our environment, messages through media and advertising, even the tastes and preferences of those around us. For those of us with a strong tendency towards valuing the affirmation of others, our motivation may overly impacted by forces outside of ourselves. Said another way, people pleasing. You can examine the motivation with a few simple questions:
Is this should mine or is does it belong to someone else? If this should belongs to someone else, this is a clue that motivation is external. You have don't need to adopt it.
Is this should about comparison or keeping up? Trying to fit in to someone else's skin is dangerous territory for many often concluding in negative self talk. If the motivation is rooted in comparison or a desire to keep up, consider reframing it to describe why it is important to you and you alone. If that is not possible, ditch it. This motivation is more likely destructive than constructive.
What is this should in service of and do I really care? If you can't articulate why this should is important to you and what goal it is in service of... the lasting motivation that will drive action is likely missing.
If I were forced to choose how to spend my time and energy, would I choose this should? Is the answer is no, it is not a priority and motivation is low. Too many shoulds like this one and you run the risk of spreading yourself so thin that nothing gets done.
Any of these practices can stand on their own. Combine them and shake the shoulds for good.
All the best, Audrey
p.s. I first heard the phrase "stop shoulding all over yourself" during my coaching training. I wish I could perfectly attribute it to one of my many esteemed professors but I likely would get it wrong. The phrase caught me at a moment when I had a very full plate - early COVID, forced to act as elementary teacher, high demand corporate role, started my coaching training which was three nights a week for nearly a year. It was hectic. But the phrase got stuck in my mind and I returned to it often when I began shoulding all over myself. I hope you find it helpful.
Why with the poopy-face? Finding a way to laugh at a tough or overwhelming situation has always helped me to neutralize the fear or anxiety. This is similar to the concept of naming the gremlin. My should gremlin is Poopy Face. Call yourself that a few times and nothing seems too serious.