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Stop Shoulding All Over Yourself

When I’m in the grip of my saboteur, I should all over myself. It’s not pretty.

Let me break that down a little.

The saboteur is one of the voices in my head that just wants me to stay small and play it safe. It’s got a handful of really attractive techniques it uses to keep me small (fear, shame, comparison, derision, judgment – to name but a few) but shoulding is one of my favorites because it’s so subtle.

Sometimes the saboteur feeds me one (or many) of the following lines:

· You should be friendlier, kinder, or more generous.

· You should be patient.

· You should be less fearful.

· You should eat healthy food.

· You should lose weight.

· You should exercise more.

· You should do more.

· You should do less.

· You should spend more time working.

· You should spend more time with your kids.

· You should spend more time with your husband.

· You should be more like your friendly, kind, generous husband.

· You should sleep more

· You should laugh more.

· You should make more friends.

· You should be happier.

It all adds up to a message of not being enough, but it’s couched in the idea that, if I were to do all those things the saboteur is telling me to do, then I would be enough.

But here’s why it’s so subtle. I also WANT to be friendlier, kinder, and more generous. I want to be more patient. I want all of these things (to varying degrees at varying times), but to get them, I need to first be at peace with the friendliness, kindness, generosity, and patience I already have.

Here’s an example of how it plays out for me: Last night, my baby was up in the night, crying so hard she was making herself gag. As her mom, I want to be there for her, but I’m terrified of barf. So the saboteur was out in force – “You should be there for your baby. You shouldn’t be afraid! She’s your baby! You should be less of a wimp and a much better mother!”

(Brutal, right? I find the saboteur is particularly nasty in the middle of the night, but that’s another story.)

What I did in response was to remind myself that yes, I want to be there for my baby, but it’s also ok for me to be afraid. I’m being as brave as I can be in that moment given what I have to work with.

(Everyone was fine, but we're pretty tired today.)

Here are some ways for you to tackle your saboteur if you find yourself covered in should:

1) Differentiate what you want from what your saboteur thinks you should

Do you want to go to the gym? If so, go. If not, have a conversation with yourself about why you might want to go and why you might not want to go. There will be consequences either way – if you go, you might be too tired to do a full workout, you might be sweaty for your next zoom call, or you might not have enough energy to make it through dinner. (Did someone say "tired"?) If you don’t go, you might feel antsy, like you’re not making progress toward your goal, or like you’ve let yourself down. Whatever you choose to do is fine, as long as you’re the one making the choice, not your saboteur.

2) Pay attention to your shouldshow

Is there a theme to your shoulds? Are they all about being kinder or gentler? Then maybe there’s something to investigate there. Are there lots about changing the way you eat/sleep/relate to others/practice/job search/do homework? Your shoulds are usually fertile ground for self-reflection. Ask yourself if you really want those things, and if so, how much? What are you willing to give up to have those things? What do all your shoulds have in common? Who would you be if you didn’t carry those shoulds around with you all the time? What would you have time/space for? Be gentle with yourself as you reflect, though. The idea is not to use your shoulds to further beat yourself up!

3) Get specific about what, exactly, the should means

If you’re dealing with “you should eat healthier food,” what does that mean, exactly? That you should eat salad at every meal? Or that fries are only a once-a-week food? What’s a reasonable definition of “healthy,” and is it one you want? If you’re dealing with “you should go to the gym,” is that every day? Six hours a day? And if you should be kinder, to whom? In what situations? And does it apply when you’re really, really tired? (Asking for a friend.)

4) Give up the behavior you should do (as a test)

Let’s say the should you’re dealing with is that you should laugh more or have more fun. What if you just give that up for a day? A week? A month? (Forever?) I’m not recommending going into some sort of depressive nightmare on purpose, but what if you took the pressure off of laughing and having fun? Maybe it would return, maybe it wouldn’t. But sitting around and shoulding yourself isn’t going to make it happen any faster.

5) Remember that you’re doing the best you can at the time with the tools you have

If you use this as a guiding mantra – I’m doing the best I can with what I have – and you truly do your best in the circumstances in which you find yourself, then you’re good. The saboteur has nothing to hold onto. And you’re not subject to the threat of shoulds because you’re already doing your best.

And remember, your best when you’re tired, lonely, hungry, annoyed, frustrated, at the end of your rope, in a crummy job, not working with a life-changing coach, etc. is not going to be the same as when you have all your resources lined up behind you.

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