Brendon Towle Coaching

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The Broken-ness of “I Should Be …”

There were countless times early in my recovery process when I would think to myself, “I should be {insert self-critical thing here}.” I would berate myself about what I should be doing, how far I should have progressed, what sort of job or girlfriend I should have, how my thinking or behavior should have improved, and so forth. Occasionally, I would even share these thoughts with someone I trusted in my recovery circle. At one point, one of them (probably my sponsor) responded with, “You’re should-ing all over yourself.”

“I should be …” (or “I should do …”) is by definition a judgmental comment. It’s also a comment that often carries with it a lot of guilt, and that guilt is often unwarranted. I talk a lot here about how self-compassion is one of the answers to self-criticism, and judgment and guilt are, shall we say, not quite compassion. To shift my thinking away from judgement and guilt, and towards self-compassion, I’ve found it useful to unpack the beliefs underlying “should” in these sentences. By doing this, I can examine those beliefs, see if I really want to hold them, and replace them with different beliefs if I don’t.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

“I should go visit my mom over the holidays!”

Here, for me, the primary belief underlying “should” is along the lines of “Other people will think poorly of me if I don’t” or “Other people expect it from me” or maybe “I’m a bad son if I don’t.” In this case, I’m probably thinking in particular about my mom’s thinking and expectations of me, although it may also be other friends and family members, or even society’s. I want to live my life primarily meeting my own expectations and not other peoples’, so this is an example of a belief that I want to discard.

“I should be wearing nicer clothes than this!”

Here, the primary belief might be very similar to the last one, but it might also be a more general “Society expects me to be different than what I am” or “A normal/average/typical person would behave differently than I do.” Again, I want to dress primarily for my own comfort, not other peoples’, so this is another belief that I want to discard.

“I should eat healthier.”

Here, the primary belief might be “I’m nervous about the consequences if I continue my current behavior,” but it also might be something like “I’m worried about people judging me for my current behavior.” In this case, the response varies. If I’m worried about the consequences of my current eating, because I value my physical health, I can start to make a plan to eat better. If I’m worried about judgement, I can remind myself that I want to worry about my own opinion of myself more than about your opinion of me.

“I should write more than I do.”

Here, the primary belief might again be “I’m nervous about the consequences if I continue my current behavior,” but it also might be something like “I heard someone I respect say that they write more than I do, and so I must be wrong by not living up to their example.” If it’s the latter, I can remind myself that different people are different, and that what works for someone else will not necessarily work for me.

“I should be better than this by now!”

Here, the primary belief is probably something like “Based on my understanding of the growth process, a normal person would have progressed further than I have.” In that case, I can just remind myself that my understanding of the growth process is incomplete.

“It’s (Christmas/New Year’s/my birthday/etc), so I should feel better than this!”

Here, the primary belief might be “I’m a bad person for feeling bad on such a special day”, but it might also be “Special days like this are supposed to erase any bad feelings I might have.” In either case, I can remind myself that humans have feelings, and I am human, therefore I have feelings. And, those feelings often aren’t what I want them to be, and that’s okay.

But, stepping back for a minute, the common thread through all of these cases is that there’s a judgement. Sometimes, it’s my judgement of what other people’s judgement should be. Sometimes, it’s my judgement about how the universe works. Sometimes, it’s my judgement about what’s required to get somewhere that I want to get. But, it’s always a judgement. And, as I talked about in “How Do I Know?”, my judgements are often flawed.

Without going into those details, the tl;dr here is that almost all of these judgements are based in incomplete information, or on my assumption that I can accurately predict what other people will think, or on comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. Further, all of them have some level of guilt involved; either feeling guilty for what I’m doing, or feeling guilty for what I haven’t done. Guilt is a shockingly poor motivator of behavior, and so none of these judgements lead me to behavior that I will find fulfilling if I continue it.1

Instead, what I find to be useful is to shift my thinking towards what I value. I value taking care of myself. I value being nice to the people around me. I value relationships where there is acceptance of me as I am. I value expressing myself in the world. I value being of service to the people around me. I value being in environments where I can make a difference. Focusing on those values helps me realize that the beliefs that are implied by the “should” statements are not actually something I believe, or want to believe, or want to act on.

As I shift my thinking from what I should do to towards what I value, my experience shifts from feeling guilty and not good enough to feeling fulfilled and confident. That’s a pretty good reward right there.

  1. As an aside, in my experience, many of these beliefs come from our family of origin. The stuff that we hear from the people who raised us and the people we grew up with has a deep, long-lasting impact on how we see the world, whether we want it to or not. I had to take a long, hard look at how those things affected my perception of the world, and decide what of that I wanted to keep and what I wanted to discard.

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