Is Your Life Run by “Should”? Written by Maggie Craddock | Print | Email

Our most deeply held values and beliefs are nothing more than our most emotionally saturated thoughts. Thus, when we get down to the serious business of working through limiting beliefs that may be retarding our professional growth, we will need to deal with some powerful feelings that have been fueling these beliefs for some time. Changing the belief system behind our perspective of reality can be as painful emotionally as severing a limb is physically. One of the ways we avoid the pain of examining our most familiar beliefs is by convincing ourselves that we “should” operate according to this belief system.

Whenever we say to ourselves, “I should …” we are speaking out of an internalized belief system that reflects our inability to trust ourselves. The bummer about “shoulds” is that when we are dominated by them, we are also dominated by the fear of being rejected or abandoned in some way, because that’s the core emotional fear that activates many of them. These ongoing fears leave many of us drained and exhausted.

Part of the work in this stage is to take a deeper look not only at what the thoughts swirling just below the surface of our consciousness are but also at what they are doing to us daily. Those pesky little shoulds “I should lose weight… I should stop smoking… I should have a bigger house… I should spend more time with my kids… I should be making as much money as my sister… ” that keep nipping away at our psyches are the psychic equivalent of Chinese water torture. Every time we use the word should, either mentally or verbally, not only are we giving our power away, we are also losing energy that is vital to our ability to take creative ownership of our careers and our lives.

The trick to releasing the shoulds is realizing that they have an emotional component as well as an intellectual one. You can make a list of the shoulds that you need to release, but you will be making this list over and over unless you deal with the feelings that keep them clinging to your psyche like Velcro. Obviously, listing them is just going to remind you of ways you are falling short of the glorious role you are playing to prove you are “good enough.” You need to try something more strategic.

The following two exercises are designed to help you begin to release your litany of shoulds and identify your authentic priorities. Many people feel a tremendous surge of energy while doing this work. When you release your shoulds you finally stop giving yourself those messages that drain you of the energy you need to move forward.


I got the name for this exercise from a client who told me that when she became discouraged, she often realized that she was having a “should attack.” To help retrain her thought process, she actually got down on her knees and pulled the weeds out of her flowerbed. She visualized herself pulling the “shoulds” out of her psyche as she pulled the weeds out of the ground. This client developed a physical ritual that got to the heart of the work for her. Likewise, we need to physically release the emotions connected to our shoulds if we are going to make meaningful progress in thinning these “mental weeds.”

Find a picture of yourself as a small child. Next, take your journal, notebook, or laptop and find a place where you can be around children.

“Kids!?” I’ve had incredulous clients thunder (these are usually the ones who are not parents; parents get this exercise before I’m through describing it). “I’m a busy person,” I had one client respond in a huff. “I don’t have time for this! I have important career decisions to make and I’m on a deadline!”

The reason it’s important to do this exercise around kids is that they reawaken an energy that has been dormant in many of us for far too long — the energy of gentleness. Spending time with children reminds you that a vital part of getting in touch with your authentic self is learning to be gentle with yourself. Phrases such as “Get that client meeting or you can get a new job! Are you an idiot? Didn’t you hear me tell you?” are the types of harsh messages that too many of us have become accustomed to in our jobs. What’s worse, since the way we speak to others is a direct reflection of the way we speak to ourselves, the mean-spirited behavior and verbal abuse that takes place in many workplaces reflects a growing problem — we are suffering from a gentleness deficiency.

The limiting beliefs and self-doubts that plague most of us are formidable opponents. One of the most effective ways of dealing with these harsh internal messages is to learn to question every single should and limiting belief with the gentle innocence of children. It was only when we were children that our psyches were malleable enough to absorb these beliefs without questioning them. By acknowledging our limiting beliefs and honoring the way they may have served us in the past, we align mentally with what’s going on inside us. Telling ourselves that we are “wrong” to hold the beliefs we do or denying them altogether just keeps us fighting a losing battle. Now that I’ve explained why you need to be around children to do this exercise (spending some time in a public park is a great way to do this), let me be a bit more specific about how this exercise works.

Instructions for “Weeding the Shoulds” Exercise

Is Your Life Run by "Should"?While you need to be around a bunch of kids, you’re also going to need some privacy for part of this exercise to do a bit of written reflection. This means that whether you are spending time with a friend’s kids or your own, you are going to need a buddy who helps you take a “time-out” in the corner of your room while you write in your journal.

The first part of this exercise is easy — just get a feel for the kids. If you are in a public park, notice how they run and play and interact with each other. If you are with some kids you know, get right down there on the floor and play with them. Notice how they react when they want something, how they recover after a fall, and how much they trust their caregivers to take care of them.

When you are ready, take a time-out and take out the picture of yourself as a child. It’s time to reflect on what you imagine you were like when you were about the age of the children around you. Now, from the perspective of that child you were in the past, take out your journal or laptop and start listing your shoulds. Just write them all down as fast as you can. For example:

I should make more money.
I should have a better car.
I should get married.
I should lose weight so my favorite jeans fit.

List as many as you can as fast as you can; don’t bother making sense of them yet. Please be sure to include your thoughts about the professional role you “should” play in life:

I should stay at my current firm.
I should start my own business.
I should learn a second language.
I should be teaching more classes.

Once you start winding down, take a look at this list from the perspective you would have had as a child. As vividly as possible, try to imagine yourself as a small child sitting next to you reviewing each item on this list and asking with the innocence that only kids possess why you should do all these things. If you can’t explain why a particular goal is on your list, you might consider weeding it out. Bear in mind that a child is likely to ask why doing a particular thing will be fun for you and how it will make you happy. If any of your shoulds can’t pass that test, it’s time to weed them out!

Take your time with Weeding the “Shoulds.” Some people can do this exercise in an afternoon. However, other clients have reported that they kept coming up with new and subtler shoulds over the course of a week. Getting through this exercise successfully is critical to building the self-acceptance necessary to proceed to the next stage, Emotional Ownership.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s