Stop shoulding all over yourself!

A favorite moment in a women's support group of which I was a part involved one of the members imploring another, "Stop shoulding all over yourself!" Those "shoulds" sure do like to creep around, crawling through the openings of our conscious and unconscious minds and oftentimes spilling right out of our mouths. And they come in slightly masked forms to do so. Sometimes they sound like, "I have to..." or, "I need to..." or, "I'm supposed to..." One of the most harmful ones I have heard sounds something like, "I should be different than I am."

Lately, I have been imagining those shoulds as cords of belief that became attached to us along the paths of our lives. Perhaps they came from our caregivers or further back in the ancestral chain, such as our great great great grandfather. Or maybe they became attached to us during interactions with our peers or teachers at school, in the middle of a religious sermon, or after watching a movie.

The cords themselves are not a problem, but how we relate to them sure can be. They can trip us, entangle us, choke us. In so doing, they keep us from realizing an internal spaciousness that allows for greater peace, joy, and freedom. If we let them. And there is the rub. I like to ask others and myself, "Is it possible to turn this 'I should' into 'I want to...' or 'I choose to...'?" That inquiry oftentimes helps to clarify what expectations are at play so that I can more freely decide how to live the daily moments of my life and wake up from the limited and limiting belief that a "right" and "wrong" pathway exists.

Importantly, I do not wheel and deal in a lot of the "choice" talk dominating the scene these days. When choice is attached to the idea of "free markets" and based on a model of scarcity--in which there are clear winners and losers--fear and shame often result, as do greater inequities between the haves and have-nots. I like Lynne Twist's depiction of scarcity as "the great lie":

We spend most of the hours and days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don't have enough of...Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we're already inadequate, already behind, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn't get, or didn't get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack...This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.*

How many of us spend our days living inside the story, "This ______ is supposed to be better than it is!?" Major inequities exist and warrant our close attention and action, yes. What I am suggesting is that bringing a sense of curiosity and wonder to our thoughts about what is supposed to be different allows us to perceive the nuances of situations--how many factors are at play and how many of those factors are impermanent and beyond our control. When we can distinguish what is real (our beliefs and feelings about a situation) from what is true (the situation's many moving parts), we can start to let go of the "shoulds" that are dragging us around and jump more fully into this moment and the next one, even when those moments are messy, hard, and without easy remedies. This life, after all, is made up of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. We cannot get rid of the inevitable pain of life, but we can choose to more fully experience the present moment. Whereas those pesky shoulds reinforce a sense of separation, leaping into now helps to maintain our sense of connection with others, the world around us, and ourselves.

At the women's support group mentioned above, the facilitators shared Isabel Bauche's poem "I Choose" as an alternative to "I Should":

I Choose... to live by choice, not by chance; to make changes, not excuses; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to excel, not compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity; I choose to listen to my inner voice, not the random opinions of others.

We also handed out Pamla Ashlay-McPherson's commentary on this poem. I particularly like her interpretation of "I choose to be motivated, not manipulated":

Yes, it is easier to allow someone to lead you around in life. To tell you what to do, to say and be. At times the path of least resistance is the one where someone else forges the way through and all you have to do is follow. How many people have followed their great leaders into death because they allowed themselves to be manipulated into believing the leader's truth. They never took the time, energy or even interest in learning their own truth. People who walk in their own truth are motivated by it. Those who do not are manipulated by the truth of others.

I wonder how much creative energy would be freed up if more of us stopped shoulding all over ourselves and comparing our situations to others'. What if, instead, we recognized, "Everyone is flawed and strange; most people [including ourselves!] are valiant, too"?**

* I borrowed this quote from pp. 25-26 of Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. ** This quote comes from p. 18 of Andrew Solomon's Far from the Tree.