I’ve mentioned it before, but I have a horrible relationship with “the shoulds”. It’s a phrase I’ve kind of adopted in describing those things that I “should have” done of “should not have” done, or the things I “should be” or the things I “should not” be. They concern the standards I try and live up to. “The shoulds” have helped me achieve things, they have helped me strive to be a better person, strive to meet goals – so I can’t be totally critical of “the shoulds”. They have served a purpose in the things I have accomplished in life.
But they have a negative impact on me. They make me overly critical of myself. Such as this morning when I realized I made a mistake in my checkbook ledger and began to admonish myself by saying, “Ugh…you’re so stupid! You should have put that charge in the ledger immediately. How could you be so fucking stupid? You should not be so irresponsible…” You get the picture, right? It’s the idea of using the shoulds in a mentally detrimental way that’s a problem.
I do it in other areas of my life too:
- I do it with respect to my health. I say things like, “You shouldn’t have eaten that!” “What do you expect when you should be going out and exercising and you don’t?” The shoulds are discouraging when it comes to my health and physical well being.
- Then there are the times I’ve done it with respect to my career and financial success (or lack thereof) For example, I have spent so much time trying to figure out what I should have done differently to ensure I had never gotten laid off twice in the past 5 years. I ponder the things I should not have done with respect to my career. I ponder the things I should have done to position myself differently. I think about the jobs I should have taken so that I can make ends meet. I think about the people with whom I should have aligned myself. I think about the opportunities I should have taken.
- I do it with respect to relationships. I should have said this or I should not have said that. I should have gotten that gift or I should have told this person off or I should have been more understanding. I should have made myself available to my suicidal little brother. I should have been a better son. I should be a better dad. I should be a better husband. I should not have gotten married. I should have asked for the respect I deserve. I should have never said that thing I said. With relationships it can go on and on, honestly.
- I’ve done it with sex and sexuality. I should be straight. I should not be bisexual. I should have never been open to anyone about my infatuation with penis. I should not have ever told anyone I’m not straight. I should have tried dating men. I should not have sucked dick. I should only be a man. I should deny my temptations. I should never tried wearing a dress. I should only dress manly. I should not try to express femininity, I can’t. I should quit trying to be something I’m not. And, like relationships, this can go on and on and on.
- With alcoholism, it’s similar. I should not drink. I should go to a meeting. I should quit, because I am the master of my decisions. I should be able to have one beer. I should not be around anyone who drinks. I should admit it to myself.
“The shoulds” have certainly been detrimental in how I handle life. I won’t claim that “the shoulds” are inherently bad, because thy can have a motivational and constructively critical effect, but they can also lead to being overly critical. And, the best thing I’ve ever heard expressed about “the shoulds” is what a therapist told me once – she said, “One of these days, you’re going to realize you should all over yourself.”