The Pain of “I Should” and How to Let Go of the “I Should” Mentality

Stressed woman

How often do you think you use I should?

I should be doing this or that. I should be writing, or exercising.

I should be thinking this way, or I should feel that way. I should think positively. I should feel happy.

Shouldn’t is the negative form of should. I shouldn’t be scared, or I shouldn’t eat this slice of chocolate cake.

If you don’t think you use should often, think again and look for its equivalents—I have to, must, need, and so on.

Lately I’ve been looking into my own use of should, and came to realize how deeply encoded it was into my mental and emotional programming.

The use of I should may feel like a good motivation.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I should is not an occasional thought. It’s usually a constant and loud nagging habit.

Let’s look at what happens with the I should mentality.

The truth behind I should

When we use I should, we’re dictating what we expect from ourselves—how we should think, feel, and behave.

Look into the things you do out of a sense of shouldness. What happens when you don’t do what you think you should do?

Can you relate to the following?

I should is based on external influences.

Where did we get the idea that we should be doing something, or feeling a certain way?

What we expect from ourselves comes from socially defined and agreed upon success and happiness metrics—we expect to do what it takes to be part of the success and happiness circle.

We expect to be productive, efficient, and creative. We should plan our day. We should have long-term goals.

I should be the best version of myself (whatever that means), and I should be interesting in order to be worthy of attention.

And when we do all these things, we expect to be rewarded financially and socially. Once we feel more successful, we expect to feel happy—and stay happy.

But how often does it work out as expected?

The best outcomes of achieving success based on the shoulds of society usually feel good, but only for a short while. Reality sets in and we realize the achievement in and of itself was not the magic happiness pill we were waiting for.

Should leads to struggle and disappointment.

I should is what we expect from ourselves. Usually we expect too much from ourselves, and we struggle with resistance and overwhelm.

When we don’t do what we think we should, we struggle with nagging thoughts, or we wallow in disappointment. We then feel dejected and question our own abilities and self worth.

Should feels urgent and desperate.

When we feel we should do something, we feel we have to do this, otherwise we won’t achieve anything meaningful. We fear that we won’t be worthy of recognition and happiness, unless we do what we should do.

Urgency is usually reactive and forced—not a positive motivation to get things done.

How many things can we do well (and enjoy doing) when we’re under the stress of urgency?

I should is unrealistic.

Obligations are not based on the reality of this moment. They’re driven by a future expected result, so we start with all the shoulds that we think will get us there.

If I’m sitting watching TV and I keep thinking I should be writing, I shouldn’t be watching TV. The reality is I’m watching TV. The expectation of writing is based on the feeling that I’m going to be late publishing the next article if I don’t get to it right away.

The struggle between the reality of watching TV and the expectation of writing doesn’t motivate me. It frustrates me, and saps my energy. I end up feeling guilty, tired, and unmotivated.

What if instead, I watch TV and enjoy myself, without guilt? Maybe I’ll enjoy what I watched, and that will motivate me to start writing. If it doesn’t motivate me, at least I won’t feel horrible about it.

Guilt and regret drain more than motivate.

I should is addictive.

If I should is always running in the background, you won’t feel much peace, even when you accomplish great things.

Once you do something, you feel great for a moment or two before another should kicks in. And then the satisfaction of getting something done turns into another nagging thought about the next thing you have to do.

Should becomes an addiction, we can’t live without it. We feel if we don’t nag ourselves, we won’t get anything done.

The underlying thought is: if I demand things from myself, and expect to do them, I’ll get them done.

Obligation vs. true desires

A genuine desire is not an obligation (should). It’s the drive to do something for its own sake, and not for a rigid metric that doesn’t mean anything when we get there.

An obligation is something we feel we have to do with the expectation of a certain outcome. The thought is: if I force myself to do it, I’ll get the reward.

Because of the addictive nature of I should, sometimes we turn a desire into I should and create needless suffering for ourselves.

I like to write is different from I should write. I want to exercise as something that I desire, is not something I have to do because of some future reward.

If you’re unclear about what you desire (or if you turned a true desire into an obligation), use the method below to remove “the should” and focus on the desire.

How to let go of I should

How many things do we really have to do? My guess: not a whole lot.

Should you be a productivity machine? Or should you exercise? Or should you think positively?

No, if you don’t care about any of these things.

None of these things is an obligation. And usually the less we care about the metrics and expectations, the freer we become to do what matters—which is what we want to do.

The process I’m suggesting here is quite simple (but not easy). You just answer a couple of questions and see where should fits.

The first question is:

Do I want to do this? If the answer is yes, you move to the next question.

If the answer is no, you let go of the nagging thought. Make a decision to not care about it, just like you decided at one point to turn it into a should. If it makes you feel better, make a list of all the “I should” you don’t care about, tell yourself they’re on the list, and let your mind relax.

The next question is:

Why do I want to do this? How would it make me feel (it’s all about the feeling)?

If you feel your reasons are honest and represent your true desires, then it’s time to do something about it. The nagging in this case is the universe nudging you to make this a priority.

When we’re focused on our truest desires, we will eliminate a lot of the noise that comes from should.

There are obligations and responsibilities. We need to take care of ourselves, show up for work, and be there for our loved ones. These are responsibilities that we chose at one point or another.

What we choose to do (or not do) will come with its own consequences. As long as we’re willing to live with the consequences of our choices, we’re not being forced into anything.

Should is demanding and expectant. I should is a toxic thought process that induces more stress than achievement, and more disappointment than satisfaction and happiness.

Let’s try and live (even for a few moments every day) without I should and see what happens.

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