How many times have you scarfed down lunch at your desk because you "should" get ahead on work? Or, how often do you see people with elaborate morning routines and think you too "should" wake up at 5 a.m. and meditate?
If these statements sound familiar, welcome to the toxic paradigm of "should-ing." Coined by psychologist Clayton Barbeau, "should-ing" is a cognitive distortion where you put pressure on yourself to do or be something based on what you think you’re supposed to do or be.
This one little word holds so much power over us, and often, we fail to recognize how much it gets in the way of us living freely. Just think about how much judgment is packed in these everyday phrases:
"I should be doing more."
"I should be nice."
"I shouldn’t quit."
"I should have more fun."
"I should feel happier."
"Should" conjures up feelings of guilt, shame, failure, or incompetence stemming from one thing: expectations. Whether the pressure is self-directed or external, "should-ing" becomes nothing but a slow cooker for burnout, anxiety, and depression.
The good news is, you don’t have to let "should" rule your life. As a certified Enneagram coach, my work involves undoing conditioning and ego structures to get to an individual's core. When it comes to shedding a "should-ing" mentality, keep in mind growth is an ongoing journey that requires patience, self-love, and acceptance. When you let go of expectations, you will begin to experience much more clarity and confidence. Ahead, I've rounded up a few tips for living should-free.
Get Acquainted With Your Deeper Desires
Often, we make assumptions about ourselves based on what we’re taught to believe. For example, after high school, you go to college (if you have the means). After being in a relationship for a while, you get married. After being in a position for several years, you move up. You don’t switch fields altogether. These internalized societal standards carve out space to follow one linear path. In the process, it influences you to adhere to what you "should" do rather than what you want.
This is why getting clear on your internal desires is important. Taking time to explore what you value through reading, journaling, or therapy can get your gears turning. Beyond that, trying new hobbies, taking classes, and learning new skill sets can connect you with a deeper sense of purpose.
However you choose to connect with yourself, it’s important to truly listen to yourself without judgment. Perhaps what you desire in your current period in life is to have more free time. That’s just as valid as someone who wants to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Leave Room for Change
Ever have an amazing idea for a side hustle and spend a month working tirelessly on it, then completely forget about it? Or, maybe while working on the side hustle, you pull a complete 180 and decide to do something different. Either way, you might feel guilty for abandoning it—and it’s time to reframe that thinking.
"Should-ing" comes into play when we set rigid goals and tell ourselves we must finish something; otherwise, we’re a failure. However, doing so takes away from your personal growth. Allowing yourself to explore and pivot can cultivate new skills and help you learn more about yourself. This can ultimately help you make more aligned decisions.
Have Honest Daily Check-ins With Yourself
Checking in with yourself helps you stay focused on what matters. When multiple things demand your attention daily, it’s easy to lose track of priorities. When you start "should-ing" yourself, ask yourself: Is this something you want to do or something you feel you should do?
Of course, if you’re in a professional situation, it may be different. However, you can use this strategy to check where your job fits into the larger picture. If you believe you "should" do something, try to analyze where the pressure is coming from. And with a clear mind, reevaluate the situation.
Reframe Productivity From "Doing" to "Being"
As a society, we are obsessed with productivity. We’re conditioned to believe if we’re not constantly in motion, we are lazy. So, it’s no wonder people are burning out and quitting their jobs more than ever. Think about how much of your own "should-ing" is tied to the idea that you’re never doing enough. At the same time, you may experience guilt for taking breaks or even have a hard time relaxing.
Instead of seeing productivity as "doing," look at it as "being" instead. You should take time to do nothing so your brain can process the day’s events. Pause to reflect on decisions rather than jumping right into action. Research shows our brains need downtime to replenish attention, better manage stress, and increase mental clarity.
Whether that’s getting lost in a good book, catching up with a friend over coffee, or having a lazy afternoon, follow what brings you joy at the moment. Everything else will flow naturally.
Learn To Listen To Your Body
Perhaps the worst part of "should-ing" is that it can cause you not to trust yourself. Think about it: how many times have you pushed yourself to complete one last task before you clock out when your body is craving rest?
Your body is an incredible source of wisdom that sends cues about your wants and needs all the time. There’s lots of research on the mind-body connection and how our thoughts and emotions affect our physical states and vice versa.
Learning and honoring your rhythms is one of the best things you can do for self-care. Instead of forcing yourself to operate at the same level of productivity each day, take advantage of your peak energy times and take breaks during your dips. People are not one-size-fits-all, so pay attention to your body and what works for you.
Ditch the Word "Should" From Your Vocabulary Altogether
Words carry energy and power—what we say affects what we think and how we feel. So, taking out "should" from your vocab? Now, that’s the ultimate power move. There’s no action associated with should. Instead, it’s cloaked with shame and guilt. When you change "should" to words like "I can," "I am," or "I will," you turn it into a choice, which leads to action. Choosing to do something puts the power back into yourself.
When you make the conscious choice to prioritize what’s right for you, there’s a sense of freedom that follows. You live with less fear and more love. Taking this pressure off allows for a life free of "should."