We’re often kept from getting what we want in life more by the demands we place on ourselves than by the demands of others. Pressure, hassles and tension often come when what we want to do conflicts with what we tell ourselves is “right”. We see a messy house and believe we “should” clean it or we long to pursue a career we’re passionate about, but tell ourselves “I can’t do that.”
If you are stuck “doing the right thing” while sacrificing what you want, your beliefs about how you ‘should’ act may be holding you back. Often, we give up on our dreams or find ourselves mired in daily duties, not because others are expecting things from us, but because we expect them from ourselves. These internal rules guide how we spend our money, use our free time and view our careers and relationships. They can originate in external expectations, moral codes or rules that you internalized long ago and now place on yourself.
Do you relate to any of the following beliefs:
- “I should solve problems on my own (not doing so is weak, needy or means I’m inadequate)”
- “I shouldn’t make requests from other people (I don’t deserve it or it’s selfish and self-centered)”
- “I should just deal with it.”
- “I should sacrifice my needs for others.”
- “I shouldn’t feel the way I do.”
- “I should have done better (at work, in a relationship, on a task)”
- “I can’t fail (failure would be disastrous)”
- “Other people’s needs and wants are more important than mine.”
- “I can’t handle criticism.”
- “I should never need to be criticized (I should behave perfectly so that there is no need for criticism)”
When you carry around a heavy load of internal rules—“shoulds”-- you become worn down and burdened by your own expectations.
Try picking one thought that you’re willing to let go. Look over the list or identify a thought of your own that contributes to your feeling overburdened and overwhelmed.
Try one or all of the following:
- Notice the thought, when you have it, and imagine it drifting in and out of your thoughts, like a cloud drifts across the sky. You might watch the thought “I should sacrifice my needs to others” come into your mind, drift by and float out. Don’t push the thought away or try to engage with it. Just notice it is there.
- Think the thought, but change the word “should” to “could.” If it’s a thought with the word “can’t” change it to “I feel sad, disappointed, anxious, when I.” Notice if the word change has an impact on how you feel. For example, you might change “I should just deal with it” to “I could just deal with it.” This subtle shift can increase the flexibility of your thoughts and expand your sense of having options.
- Imagine doing the thing you “should not” do and in your image, imagine a positive outcome. For example, if you tend to think “I should not need help,” you might imagine asking a supervisor for help. Now imagine that while your supervisor helps, you realize you have commonalities and end up developing a stronger relationship.