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The Tyranny Of “Shoulds”4 Min Read

The Tyranny of “Shoulds”4 min read


This Saturday I called my youngest sister to wish her happy birthday. 

We spent some time catching up before the conversation drifted to the topic of her art business and how she felt bad that she procrastinated a lot, didn’t have goals and overall wasn’t a success.

So, of course, being a coach, I started asking her questions.

“Is it really true you’re not a success?” I asked her. “Yes, you don’t make as much money as you’d like, but does that mean you’re not a success?”

“Well, it feels like I’m not,” she replied.

“Ok, well there are a lot of areas in your life; there’s your relationship, health, friends, lifestyle, finances, a lot of things that make up your life, right?

“Yes, but…”

“Well, let’s look at some of those things in your life.” I continued. “You don’t make a lot of money, perhaps, but your husband makes a good income and you were able to pay off your mortgage early. You pretty much have no debt. I wish I could say that! We have a second mortgage that won’t be paid off for seven years.

“How about health?” I went on. “You hike, you ride your bike. You stay fit and you eat well. Sounds like you’re pretty successful in that area of your life. I hardly exercise at all, in case you were wondering.

“And how about your friends and social life? You know so many people and are well-liked and highly regarded in the art community. Me? I’m more of a loner and have only a couple friends who live far away with whom I keep in touch with every month or so.”

After talking about a few areas of her life that were measurably and inarguably more successful than those areas of my life, I asked her, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

“From any objective measure, it seems like you’re a whole lot more successful than I am!”

“Well, it still doesn’t feel like it,” she replied. “I’m such a perfectionist and if there’s something in my life that doesn’t meet my standards, I’m not happy.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “So it isn’t what’s actually happening that’s the problem. It’s how you’re judging yourself about certain areas of your life, right?”

“I guess so.”

“Essentially, you’re saying to yourself, “Things should be different. I should be different. I should make more money.”

“Well, yes, that’s true, I should make more money!”

“But is that really true? That you should make more money? And is it true that if you make the money you’re making now you’re not successful?

“Do you see that these two things are not related? Things are exactly the way they are, right? Isn’t everything in your life exactly the way it is?

“So what does what you say to yourself have anything to do with it?

“Let’s look at this through an absurd example. You have five fingers on each hand, right? And what if you believed you should have six fingers on each hand? Every time you looked at your hand, you’d be upset that you didn’t have six fingers.

“That’s really no different than making $XXX per year and thinking you should be making $XXXX per year.

She replied in an exasperated tone, “Well, then you’re saying I should be complacent and not want anything more in my life. I shouldn’t want more money or other things in my life.”

“Not really,” I replied. “I’m just pointing out that when you impose the tyranny of shoulds on anything you currently have in your life, you suffer.

“What if it was impossible to think that you should have anything right in this moment other than what you have now?”

“Well, I guess I wouldn’t be so stressed about it.”

“Yes, and imagine if all the shoulds in your life simply disappeared? What would that be like?”

“Hmm,” she replied, thoughtfully. “Well I guess I could just go for doing certain things I’m holding myself back from doing because I’m worried I won’t succeed. But I also procrastinate all the time.”

“You shouldn’t procrastinate? Look, everyone procrastinates. The only problem is that you think you shouldn’t procrastinate. Doesn’t that just make you procrastinate more?”

“Yeah, the tyranny of shoulds. I’m starting to get it!”

“Yes, shoulds are tyrannical,” I concluded. “They prevent you from just being who you are in the moment, enjoying the successes you do have. They stop your creativity and resourcefulness. And they can keep you feeling miserable and unsuccessful.

“When you clearly see how those shoulds dominate your life and only cost you grief, they won’t hold on so tight anymore.”

“So what should I do next?” she replied.

And then we just burst into laughter.

Cheers, Robert


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