Drop The “Shoulds”

Drop The “Shoulds”

Is it really true?

The Practice:
Drop the “shoulds.”

Why?

One time I watched a three-year-old at her birthday party. Her friends were there from preschool, and she received lots of presents. The cake came out, she admired the pink frosting rose at its center, and everyone sang. One of the moms cut pieces and, without thinking sliced right through the rose – a disaster for this little girl. “I shoulda had the rose!” she yelled. “I shoulda shoulda SHOULDA had the rose!” Nothing could calm her down, not even pushing the two pieces of cake together to look like a whole rose. Nothing else mattered, not the friends, not the presents, not the day as a whole: she was insistent, something MUST happen. She had just HAD to get the whole rose.

It’s natural to move toward what feels good and away from what doesn’t, natural as well to have values, principles, and morals. But when these healthy inclinations become internal rules – “shoulds,” “musts,” and “gottas” – then there is a big problem. We feel driven, righteous, or like a failure. And we create issues for others – even a whole birthday party.

At the bottom, “shoulds” are not about events. They’re about what you want to experience (especially emotions and sensations) if your demands on reality are met or what you fear you’ll experience if they’re not.

[These wants or fears are rooted in ancient circuits in subcortical areas (e.g., amygdala, striatum) and brainstem nodes that originated 200-300 million years ago. They’re also highly influenced by childhood, especially the early years, with its concrete and either-or ways of thinking. For example, a person whose young longings for love was met with pain could have a kind of inner circuit breaker – the concrete implementation of an inner rule (“don’t ask for love”) – that makes her shy and spacey/sleepy when there is an opportunity to ask for the caring she wants from her partner.]

Whether your “shoulds” are shaped by neural programs laid down when dinosaurs ruled the earth or when you were in grade school, they often operate unconsciously or barely semi-consciously – all the more powerfully for lurking in the shadows.

Plus, in a deep sense, your “shoulds” control you. (I’m not talking here about healthy principles and desires,  which you’re more able to reflect on and influence.)

Imagine what it would be like to drop your “shoulds” in an upsetting situation or relationship.

What’s this feel like? Probably relaxing, easing, and freeing.

You can and will continue to pursue wholesome aims in wholesome ways. But this time, no longer chained to “shoulds.”

How?

As you explore the suggestions below, keep in mind that you can still behave ethically and assert yourself appropriately. Not one word in this JOT is about harming yourself or others or being a doormat.

Bring to mind some situation or relationship that’s bothering you. Find a central “should” in your reactions to it, like “That can’t happen,” or “this must happen,” or “they can’t treat me this way,” or “I couldn’t stand ____ ,” or “you must  ____ .” Notice that the “should” is a statement about reality, the way it is.

Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?” Let the answer reverberate inside you.

You could find that in fact the “should” is not true. Good things we “must” have – even a pink rose made of sugar and butter – often fail to arrive. And bad things that “must” not happen often do.

I don’t mean that we ought to let others off the moral hook or give up on making the world better. I mean that when we face reality in all its messy streaming complexity, we see that it exists independent of our rules, always wiggling free of the abstractions we try to impose upon it. This recognition of truth pulls you out of conceptualizing into direct experiencing, into being with “the thing-in-itself.” Which feels clear, peaceful, and free.

Consider again the situation or relationship that bothers you, and this time try to find an even deeper “should” that’s related to an experience you “must” have or avoid, such as “I’ll be so embarrassed if I have to give a talk,” or “I can’t stand to be alone,” or “I must feel successful.” Then, facing this “should,” ask yourself a question: “Is it really true?”

You’ll probably find that you could indeed bear the worst possible experience that would come if your “should” were violated. I’m not trying to minimize or dismiss how awful it might feel. But the adamancy, the insistence, built into a “should” is usually not true: you would live through the experience and get to the other side – and eventually other, better experiences would come to you. Most of us are so much more resilient, so much more capable, so much more surrounded by good things to draw upon, so much more contributing and loving than we think we are!

Also, consider the situation or relationship through the eyes of the others involved. Ask yourself if the things you think are imperatives, mandates, rules, necessities, etc. are like that for others. Probably not. And flip it around: what “shoulds” are alive in the minds of others . . . that you are violating. Yikes! When I think about this applied to situations I get cranky about, it’s very humbling.

A final thought: dropping the “shoulds” exposes you to a sense of vulnerability to life and the difficult feelings that come with it – and that can be hard. We use “shoulds” to try to hold at bay the pain and loss we all do or will inevitably face in full measure (some of course more than others). Yet the pain and loss that do come will come regardless of our “musts” and “can’t” – which only delude us into thinking that this tissue of rules will somehow hold back life’s tide.

Paradoxically, by opening to this tide as it runs in your life – a deeper truer reality than can ever be contained by the nets of thought – you both reduce the uncomfortable friction imposed by “shoulds” upon those currents and increase your sense of opening out into and being lifted and carried by life’s beautiful stream.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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