The shoulding syndrome

“Your next step is always apparent: It’s the most obvious thing that will bring you joy, always some sort of rest or play.” ~Martha Beck (from a Daily Coach Tip on Facebook)

Between my perfectionism and all the critics I carry around in my head, I am a champion at shoulding on myself. I’ve never been inclined towards sports, but if there were an Olympic competition in shoulding on oneself, I’d bet I could bring home the gold! I should on myself about what I eat, how I exercise (or don’t exercise), how I work, how much I work, my house cleaning (or lack thereof), what I wear, what I do with my spare time, how much I sleep, how I feel, what I like (or don’t like), what I think, and just about every other thing you can imagine. And I do this all day long every day. Better yet, with all those critics in my head, I can even manage to should on myself in contradictory ways: I should get more done at work AND I should work fewer hours, I should get more sleep so I have more energy AND I should manage to get by on less sleep so I can get more done, I should eat healthy AND I should find ways to consume more calories to gain back some of the weight I’ve lost through stress in the last year.

The problem with all these shoulds is that it not only makes me miserable to always be hearing these nagging voices, it also triggers my inner rebel who really hates to be told what to do. So my very attempt to force myself into doing these things that I think I should do prompts the resistance which keeps it from happening. Even those things that I love to do (get more sleep!) wind up not happening as soon as I add a should to it.

So this daily coach tip I quoted above really took me aback when I first read it. All of my inner critics and my inner perfectionist were completely offended by such a concept. How on earth will I ever get anything productive done if I just do what brings me joy? I’ll be out on the street in no time if I do nothing but rest and play!

The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I think that she just might be right. I know that when I’m doing work that I truly love and that feeds my soul, it feels like play. It restores me in the same way that rest does. So choosing those things that bring me joy doesn’t mean I’ll never again get anything productive done; in fact, it may well mean that I will become more productive because I’ll be doing the things that I’m meant to be doing, the things that bring me fully alive and make use of my highest potential. Perhaps learning to choose those things which bring me joy is all a part of learning to listen to my intuition guiding me in the paths I need to tread to become the person I am meant to be, the me that has the most to offer to the world around me. Perhaps the time when I choose joy are the moments when I bring my most authentic self to life.

The problem is that my life is currently structured in ways that require me to do a lot more of the shoulds than the joys. I am working on making changes in the structure of my life that will allow for more freedom to focus on the things that bring joy and less on those than feel like shoulds. As I journey toward that goal—and even once I reach that point—I need to find better ways of talking to myself as I make choices so lose the shoulds and stop prompting that inner rebel’s resistance. That’s not an easy task. Just changing the word should to ought, need to, must, or some other word won’t cut it. The effect is still the same. I need a radically different way of approaching these things that I really don’t want to do.

Perhaps framing things a little differently can help. Rather than “I should eat better,” perhaps “I feel better when I eat better, and I choose to what will help me feel better” would be a more empowering (and effective) way to think of this. I shift from beating myself over the head with a should (and thereby triggering that rebel) to a state of encouragement to do something that would bring more joy, even if it means more work to cook healthier in the short-term.

More importantly, listening more closely to my intuitive sense of what would bring the greatest joy in any given decision, in any given moment, will lead me down a pathway that will bring greater authenticity to the life I live and the gifts I have to offer. The overflow of this joyful way of living will make doing the things that are necessary but possibly not the most fun seem less onerous. Even those things (like cleaning the house) have their joyful benefits for having been done.