The power of "should" - How expectations enslave us

Language is powerful. It has the power to control us. One word, in particular, stands out to me: “should". I'd love to completely banish this word. It's one of the most controlling words in the English language, and it creates nothing but unhappiness.

I dislike the word “should” in all its derivations - especially as it pertains to how you see your career and how you define acceptable actions in your life. It implies an expectation of your actions that comes from outside you. It is created in myth, by your mind, about how your mind thinks you're expected to be and act, based on what others think is right.

Unfortunately, the power of “should” usually manifests itself in guilt, unhappiness and dislocation. This is why I hate the word. It is created in your head and causes more bad feelings - in your head!

We can choose to believe in myths, but these myths need to be seen for what they are. You can't hold an idea or myth. You can't weigh it. You can't snap it in half. A "should" is empowered by others who also want to believe in it. “It is simply a mental creation we choose to use as a frame of reference.

The good news? You can change! You don't need permission to tinker with it and no one will notice if you blow it up. If you went around all day and kicked your metaphysical "shoulds" in the butt, no one would ever know!

It's a sad fact that many people build lives based on “shoulds”, rather than wants or needs.

"Should" captures us

One of the craziest things about “should” is the way it creates guilt. Subsequently, it has us acting in ways that don't align with what we actually want. It is insidious; a lot of the time, you're not even aware that you're acting based on it. It flies under the radar. We don't pick up on it until we have the feelings of disappointment that manifest when we know we've done things for other people's reasons.

So much of our disaffection, impatience and tension is caused by the many ways we follow other people's “shoulds”.

For me, there are many areas of my life where the power of “should” has caused disappointment, stress and anxiety. Some examples include:

  • I “should” work instead of going to the gym over lunch, because I “should” value making money and doing my job more than my training.
  • I “should” spend more time with my kids because that is what people expect and I want to be a good father rather than taking my wife away for the weekend.
  • I “should” have been happy being a lawyer or recruiter and put value in those titles rather than starting other businesses.
  • I “should” do a course on email marketing because I “should” make more money to live in a better house and buy more stuff.
  • I “should” buy a house in the suburbs and be happy living in it, as that is the Australian dream. I “should” be happy paying off a mortgage for 30 years rather than living somewhere more modest but having the money to travel with my kids.

Who says you should?

It all boils down to understanding one thing - who is actually saying that you should? Is it yourself? Or is it a social/family norm? What and who is empowering that thought? If anyone external is defining what you should or shouldn't do, you're losing and you need to get back in control.

This is not at all easy. We are socially conditioned on a massive scale. In fact, if you believe Yuval Noah, he makes the point in “Sapiens” and in “Homo Deus” that believing in ideas outside ourselves is what sets our species apart. The point, though, is realising what you are doing, and taking back control of the things you choose to believe in.

For me, I recognise that the “protestant work ethic” is a powerful “should” impacting my decision making. The need to feel productive and work hard is intrinsic to me. So, when I am making that decision between the BJJ class and working more, I'm fighting centuries of human conditioning. That's cool, and sometimes I want to believe it. But at least now I realise that's what I'm doing if I want to skip out on class.

How to defeat should

It's hard fighting this social and personal conditioning sometimes, as it's a constant fight. But if you choose the red pill of reality, then it is something you have to learn to hack to make easier.

For me, asking myself why I feel guilty, or why I feel like I should do something, and answering it honestly is a good first step. Now, I can still choose to do that thing out of the expectation of others, but at least I know that's why I did it!

I also like to take those decisions away and trust in my schedule to force the change over time. What I mean by that is that I know I want to value my workout as much as my bank balance, so I create a schedule that means I never skip out on a class. I force myself, through the power of my routine, not to have the conversation. Over time it then becomes easier to make those choices, especially if you treat your routine as sacrosanct.

Another way to approach this problem is to look for possibilities. When you are controlled, you are living a contingent life. When you make decisions based on other people's expectations and “shoulds”, you limit what you are able to achieve. Yet when you approach things as possibilities you put them in the now. You take the judgemental power away from the “shoulds” in your head and make decisions based on what you need in that moment. Possibilities are inherently empowering, whereas expectations are inherently limiting.

The takeaway? A little effort can make a big difference in starting to live a more authentic life and destroying the power of “should”.

How this applies to your life and work

We could end the post here, and you would walk away and consider for maybe a day what expectations and “shoulds” others have placed in your head. Instead, we'd rather make it stick! Below are a few questions you can ask yourself. It will help you see more clearly how this concept impacts your life.

  • Do you judge what you do against a standard? If so, whose standard and why?
  • Are there things you'd like to do but you're worried about how other people will perceive it?
  • Can you ever say no? Do other people in your life dictate what you do?
  • Are there things you do that you want to feel guilt free about but don't know how to?
  • What small changes can you make to the way you see value in things that better align with what you want? What do you recognise you're doing to impress others?
  • Are there ways you can free up some time to alleviate the pressure to do things others require of you?

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