During a job interview in my twenties, I noticed an ashtray. Or rather, I noticed the words painted around its white ceramic rim: Thou Shalt Not Should On Thyself. The woman interviewing me blew smoke directly into my face, stubbing out her butts into that mesmerizing message. (This was during the 80’s, an era when second-hand smoke had not been outed as a definitive health hazard.) Lucky for both of us, I did not get the job—to be her editorial assistant, code for managing her administrative tasks, a role I would have bombed. But I never forgot the ashtray edict.
It’s thirty years later, and barely a day has passed when I have not thought to myself or said aloud to someone I care about: Thou shalt not should on thyself.
Should sprouted in our psyches as an attempt to socialize ourselves, adopted from those who socialized us: you should say thank you; you shouldn’t pull hair; you should wash your hands; you shouldn’t poop on the floor. Lodged in our brains as a directive, designed to keep us safe, on track, likable and good, should then took on a life of its own, running 24/7 on internal autopilot, attempting to improve us. You shouldn’t feel that; you should think this; you shouldn’t like that; you should want this.
If you really listen to your internal shoulds, are they constantly insinuating that you’re doing it wrong? That you should have done X differently, shouldn’t have said Y? Shouldn’t be feeling how you feel, should be more productive? Does your Should Machine ever say: You should feel exactly the emotion you happen to be feeling? Should be doing exactly what you’re feeling drawn to do? If so, congratulations! Seriously. Because it’s highly likely you’ve done some extremely successful reprogramming inside that head of yours.
But even the fortunate humans who’ve been able to cultivate an internal messaging system that pipes in self-compassion, self-permission, and self-love, still have our original Should Machine running in the background—the system that cannot be deleted because it’s an indelible part of our brain. This default operating system kicks in when our resources are low, when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (acronym: HALT). Which is of course right when we need our new self-loving operating system the most! This past winter, when I had a particularly bad case of seasonal affective disorder (another acronym! SAD), my default Should Machine nearly took over, and nearly took me down. I had to work diligently on a daily (if not hourly) basis to jumpstart Self-Love Two-Point-Oh.
The best we can do as homo sapiens with our sophisticated multi-faceted brains is start (and re-start) our own new improved internal system, which plays in stereo with the original. If we work vigilantly enough, the new system becomes as audible as the Should Machine. And if we stay with it, we can maybe turn up the dial of the new system enough to drown out the system that—though designed to improve us—has over time turned defective, negative.
If you want to change something in yourself, does telling yourself you should be different than you are—should be better than you are—work? If so, keep it up. But when this no longer motivates you, and instead wears you down, try cultivating a new voice. One that says, It’s okay to feel exactly how you feel, because you’re you, and you are okay just the way you are. Try telling yourself, as many times a day as you can, that you’re already lovable, right here, right now, without a single improvement. See what happens when this voice takes hold. Feel the security of knowing you are okay. The relief of understanding you are not broken and in need of being fixed. Discover for yourself whether this new messaging system may be in fact more motivating, more compelling and inspirational than those effing repetitive outdated Shoulds.