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The Should Monster

You can’t force yourself to do something simply by invoking “should,” even though most of us do it so often we don’t even notice.

Tiffany Duncan
October 28, 2018

“You can’t ‘should’ yourself into anything,” and “stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself’” are phrases often heard around the counseling office I go to once a week. It’s a mindset switch our counselors try to imbed into us counselees, meaning that you can’t force yourself to do something simply by invoking “should,” even though most of us do it so often we don’t even notice.

Think about it. Running in the background of most people’s heads at all times are thoughts like: I should be farther along in life by now; I should be trying harder; I should stop smoking; I should be waking up earlier; I should not eat Oreos; I should run every day; I should eat more salad; I should be skinnier; I should, I should, I should…

Most of those things don’t seem so bad, right? Ah, but that’s precisely where the trouble comes in. Taking things that we are told are good for us and framing it with the word “should” will always only do two things. The first is that we will immediately feel shame that we are not doing those things currently, and the second is that our brains immediately rebel against whatever we are “should-ing” ourselves with, because no one likes to feel shame and we are always trying to return to a place of perceived calm.

The word “should” is a true monster of a word. The instant we tell ourselves we should be doing something is the same instant we are likely going to do the exact opposite of that thing. In order to achieve real, lasting change, the impetus must come from a place of self-acceptance — not judgment — or you’re dead in the water before even beginning.

Should-ing is something I’ve been dealing with pretty strongly lately, as the year begins to wind down and I still have yet to drop 11 the last 20 pounds I was hoping to lose before Dec. 31 (at the time of writing, this it’s the beginning of October). I’ve lost 10 since January, and luckily am sustaining that mark, but not much more. This is prime ground for thoughts like “I should be farther along” to creep in, and creep in they certainly have.

But it isn’t fair to put myself under the “should” microscope without considering what else has happened this year: having to share space with another family for over five months while our home was under renovation; walking through a debilitating month of severe, untreatable vertigo; and starting a new job that has been so stressful, my brain and body physically couldn’t handle anything else at the end of the day.

Grace for yourself and personal circumstances always, always need to be a part of the equation.

Another way to think about should-ing is a concept called “secret rules” I heard about recently on a podcast. Jon Acuff, a New York Times bestselling author, was on the That Sounds Fun podcast talking about his new book, Finish, in which he discusses what he believes holds people back from achieving their deepest goals and dreams. He thinks it comes down to what he terms “secret rules” we all live by. Secret rules are a set of beliefs — often unexamined and privately held — that define how we live our life, but in reality are actually total lies we unnecessarily burden ourselves with.

This could look like anything — a mom never taking time for herself because perhaps a secret rule she’s come to believe is that doing anything for herself is selfish, therefore she lives burnt out and exhausted. Or someone else staying in a job he hates rather than pursuing one he loves because he believes that the “right” job is the one that brings home the most bacon.

It could also look like never attending a fitness class because you believe it’s for “those kind of people,” or that people will laugh at you (personal experience with this one).

For me, I realized the “secret rule” that’s been driving me this year is that the culmination to all this work should be (you notice that? “should”?) running the Route 66 half-marathon in November, even though I have never run anything close to 13 miles, ever. The farthest I’ve ever run was 8 miles during cross-country in high school, and that was over 11 years ago. Yet I’ve been should-ing myself to death over this half-marathon, thinking that nothing else is a sufficient enough goal.

But guess what this secret rule has led to? Me eagerly rising before work each morning to fit in 5-8 miles for months so I’ll be ready? Nope. More like feeling so much debilitating pressure and intimidation at the thought of 13 miles that I wasn’t running at all. In this situation, “should” only led to shame, and shame to one place: nowhere.

I’m not sure why or how running the half became the standard for success in my head, but it did. So I decided to look my secret rule in the face and call it out for what it was: a lie. So I signed up for my first official 5k, because 3 miles is much more attainable to a scared new runner than 13 miles. And guess what — I’ve been able to work out because the debilitating pressure is no longer there! Well, for the most part, anyway. It’s still hard to show up and slow down the Should Monster before every workout. But at least I’m coming at it from a place of self-acceptance — from accepting my beginner fitness level without shame — and working upward from there.

What have you been should-ing yourself with? What secret rules are you living by that are keeping you from actually starting? Once you can answer this, you will be amazed how quickly the practical steps to change will present themselves.

It’s amazing what can happen when you simply let yourself off the hook.  


Four Thoughts I Use to Fight the “Should” Monster

Framing thoughts from a place of gratitude
I get to run and use my two functioning legs; I get to breath in fresh air and be thankful for healthy lungs. I once heard someone say something like, “Someone out there is desperately wishing for the exact thing you are complaining about.” Powerful.

Motivating myself not from a place of shaming pressure, but a place of celebrated progress
I begin a workout with thoughts like “No matter how little or how far I run today, I’ve already done the hardest part, and that’s showing up at all.” Praising yourself for the smallest things paves the path to building sustainable habits. Remember, shame only ever leads to our minds rebelling and shutting down.

Never, ever, EVER compare yourself to others
“Never compare your beginning with someone else’s middle” is a quote I repeat to myself over and over and over. I like to pretend I have those blinders on that horses wear to keep their eyes focused forward, because one glance, one thought in the wrong direction, and it’s all over.

Let your “end game” be your motivation
Instead of should-ing and shaming yourself into an overwhelming, blind goal, decide instead what your own personal end game is: I want to run a 5k to prove to myself what I’m capable of; I want to try a yoga class so I can overcome my fear of looking silly in front of others; I want to quit smoking to improve my lung capacity. I want to feel healthy and energetic; I want to not quit on myself for once.

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Utilizing as many free and cheap resources as she can find in the 918 area, routinely forsaking her fitness comfort zone to discover effective workouts, and cooking more intentionally from home, Duncan is publicly documenting her progress in each issue as she works to lose 30 pounds in 2018.