On ‘Shouldism’…

“Authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice — a conscious choice of how we want to live. Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true self be seen.”

(Dr. Brene Brown)

There are the ‘shoulds’ we grow up with that keep us safe and help us ‘fit in’ and there are the ’shoulds’ that can interfere with our personal growth, cause us constant strain and turn us into our worst critics. This kind of self-criticism generates not only heightened anxiety in our attempt to fulfil our inner demands but also feelings of guilt for not being ‘perfect’. The effect of ‘shoulds’ vary depending on our experience, however, as they always cause stress and tension they can be utterly draining. Their effect can cause people to withdraw and avoid responsibility altogether and they can affect relationships whereby we may become hypersensitive to criticism, too harsh and critical of others, too apprehensive, too defiant and/or too compliant.

Fritz Perls, one of the originators of Gestalt Therapy,  used the term ‘shouldism’ to describe the process whereby we accept persistent disapproval of others with our behaviour and social and religious taboos as true, internalise them and turn them against ourselves in the form of sometimes severe self-criticism. We are often unaware that these inner ‘dictates’ are the attitudes and ideas of significant others and our environment, which we have ‘swallowed’ without question.

They are about how others want us to act, their view of what we should and shouldn’t be able to do, feel and know, and completely disregard what we do feel, what we can and want or need to do in the present moment. These ‘shoulds’ can impede on the spontaneity of our feelings, hopes, needs, thoughts and beliefs, of being true to ourselves.

‘Shoulds’ often cover up our fears, suspicions and resentments. Perls maintains that ‘shouldism’ in adults reflects a childlike desire to please others rather than to respond to ones’ own genuine needs. Those internalised beliefs and attitudes prevent us from moving forward. We feel trapped with no sense of choice. ‘Shoulds’ can become rigid, a law in themselves and when trying to measure up to them, we set ourselves up to fail and not fulfil our self-imposed standards. They lead to frustration and disappointment with ourselves and with others who do not meet our expectations.

Why not replace ‘should’ with ‘could’? Try saying, ”I should be more helpful” and notice how that feels in comparison to “I could be more helpful”. Which version makes us feel strain or anxiety? Which version makes us feel we have choice? When does it sound critical and judgemental and when does it sound supportive?

Whose voices are behind your ‘shoulds’, what beliefs, what fears? Most importantly ask yourself….what do you want?