Look at all the things other people and various industries or marketing ploys pressure us and others to do, all in the name of "should..." or "should not."
- You should or should not be eating this way.
- You should or should not be exercising that way.
- You should have this body type.
- You should or should not be feeling this way.
- You should be over that by now.
- You should be studying that degree.
- You should or should not go to that school.
- You should buy this product.
- You should drive that car.
- You should stay at, or quit, your job.
- You should be making more money.
- You should be getting along better with that family member.
- You should be catering more to your friend's demands.
- You should forgive your abuser.
- You should be sorry.
Worse yet, look at how we use "should" and "should not" to punish ourselves, and for things on which, at a closer glance, we might actually be right.
- I really should lose weight. Look how fat and worthless I am.
- I should stop whining. I'm having such a hard time, but I have so much for which to be thankful, especially compared to others.
- I shouldn't have had that piece of cake. I'm a terrible person with no self-control.
- I shouldn't be standing up to my mother like that. She might berate and belittle me any time I call her, but she gave me life.
- I should have listened to my partner/spouse. Maybe I deserved to have him/her treat me that way because I pushed too hard.
- I should stop being such a bitch/an asshole.
- I should have listened to my Dad. He's right, I'm in a dead end career because I didn't become a (enter imposed career choice here).
- I should work harder at forgiving (name). God won't forgive me if I don't, and then I'll go to Hell.
Can you think of others that belong on either of these lists? I'm sure you can... though I won't say you should.
It isn't to say that "should" in itself is a dangerous word. It's just six letters arranged in a way that the dictionary defines as "a simple past tense of shall" (Dictionary.com). On its own, it's merely a word...
It's what we, other people, industries, marketing ploys, or societal dictates inject into its meaning and context by the way we misuse it against ourselves and others that makes it so dangerous. Human influence is a powerful thing. We all possess the ability to use it for leadership or to overpower and abuse.
"Should" brings questionable truths with it when used to overpower and abuse. Should you really have refrained from that piece of cake? Does that really make you a terrible person? I doubt it. Perhaps you were in a celebratory mood, and perhaps you otherwise eat healthy.
Are you really an asshole or a bitch, or have others conditioned you to believe that about yourself?
Just how much merit does that Bowflex commercial really have when it comes to purporting the perfect body type and then telling you that you should buy their machinery to get that way?
Oh, and whining? Are you truly whining, or are you going through a hard time and need support? Sure, we all have things for which to be grateful, yet consider this: Gratitude for the good and suffering through the bad can coexist, and life is certainly not a contest. Nobody has the right to guilt you over how you feel about your misfortunes.
Now, here are some "shoulds" that I think we can all apply for a better life:
We should do our best to be healthy... and we should stop beating the daylights out of ourselves when we miss the mark. I eat paleo/primal most of the time, but I'll admit I allow myself to break those rules. Most chocolates, even the no-sugar ones sweetened with stevia, honey, agave, etc., have soy lecithin. I'm not going to let some paleo "guru" give me crap over allowing a little soy into my diet so that I can enjoy some chocolate.
I'm also not going to go about my day mentally kicking myself for missing a workout. Bummed, yes, but I will not self-berate. I do Callanetics, and based on how she talks to her students and what she's said in her books, I am confident even Callan Pinckney would not endorse such self-talk if she were still alive.
We should do our best to treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect... and again, we should stop beating ourselves up when we miss the mark. Especially when we are struggling with mental health conditions or extreme stress that can compromise how we behave. It's not a pass to be mean and abusive, to be sure, and we have an obligation to make amends as soon as possible when we do wrong.
On the other hand, I have yet to know of a time that shaming myself half to death ever resulted in an improvement of my behavior or ability to control myself. If that works for you, then fine, but it sure never worked for me.
We should do what we can to make this world a better place. That begins with love, and as Mother Teresa said, love begins in the home. I believe it also begins in our own hearts, by opening them to God's infinitely abundant love. Once we tap into that love, we can make amazing things happen.
Those things do not have to be humongous or extraordinary by some out-of-reach standard. Donating a bag of clothing to a thrift store might not seem amazing to you. Yet if someone down on their luck buys that really nice suit or dress you gave away for a few bucks to attend a job interview, and looking nice in your old duds helped them gain employment that gets them out of a rut, they will think you did something amazing for them. They may, in turn, pay it forward to someone else down on their own luck, and so forth. That is a wave of love and generosity started by your simple act of kindness - and that is amazing!
We should never tolerate abuse. Ever. You do not deserve to be the target of malicious words, spiritual shaming, a physical attack, or a sexual assault by a stranger, a friend, a family member, a spiritual leader, an authority figure, or a partner or spouse. Conversely, other people do not deserve that sort of behavior from you.
If you are in a relationship with someone who is mistreating you, you have the right to protect yourself. That includes getting out if that is what it takes - you owe that to yourself. Waiting to see if the other person will change will only keep you vulnerable to more abuse. Take it from someone who knows. The only person you can change is yourself, and the first thing you can do in that area is start protecting yourself and anyone vulnerable to abuse who cannot protect themselves.
If you are the one who is being abusive, get help and end the cycle... right now. Not tomorrow - now. You owe it to your loved ones before it's too late and you end up permanently wounding them, destroying relationships, or figuratively or literally destroying lives. The tendency to abuse others won't stop because you wish you would, and it will involve making very hard choices, but when the alternative is ending up in jail, maiming someone you love emotionally, psychologically, or physically, estranging your children, etc., then suddenly, tough choices don't seem so tough.
Take it from someone who knows - and no, you did not misread that. I repeated it. Yes, I've been both a giver and a receiver of abuse, and the regret I experience from the damage I've done to those who meant most to me is not worth the false sense of power and control abusing others gave me. I paid a heavy price for how I treated others, but not nearly as high as the price my victims paid for how shitty I treated them.
We should never compare ourselves to others. As I said before, life is not a contest. Once you begin that competition - openly or in your own head - it only results in loss and tears. You will always find a way to tear yourself down using perceived standards from someone else, or worse yet, you may put yourself on a pedestal and use comparisons to judge or tear down others. Don't go there.
We should never allow others to act as God's mouthpiece on our behalf, nor should we presume that we are God's mouthpiece. God has plenty of ways to speak to us. He does so through Scripture, tradition, conversation in prayer and meditation, miracles, the inspired words and actions of others, nature, you name it. God can also speak for Himself perfectly fine.
God is also, at the core of things, undefinable. In the Old Testament, He calls himself I AM. That is by design, something Jewish traditions follow by not mentioning God's name. It's we who try to define for ourselves or others who He is, or how He really speaks to us, what He is really trying to say to us, and that is where the trouble starts. Specifically, that is how spiritual abuse and control can generate.
I have learned through experiences, as well as from my own arrogance and stupidity, that the best thing I can do to represent God is shut up and let Him guide me... and sometimes, do His own work through me. "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) says it all. To be sure, I believe God expects me to use the brain He gave me to take action, and sometimes I believe He expects me to use that same brain to understand when I need to take a back seat and act as a vessel rather than a steering rudder.
In what areas of your life have "shoulds" limited you? What can you do to change that and redefine your "shoulds" to be opportunities for growth?