Last year in September, in a moment of many thoughts and few certainties, I’ve made a decision to rent a cabin in the woods on the outskirts of Berlin for one full week. I have read a lot about the benefits of a solo retreat and was also motivated by my boyfriend who had done something similar earlier in the year.
That was a tough week, let me tell you. Not because I was alone, since I love silence and being by myself, but because of the long and very dark nights in the middle of nowhere, without a phone connection, surrounded by trees. And trust me, a wooden cabin can bring up lots of fears, as every little squirrel and friendly bird sound like a monster trying to get in when you hear it in the middle of the night. But that’s not the main topic of this post, so let me get to the point.
A few days before going to the solo retreat, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and found a post from Sara Blakely (if you don’t know her, please do!). She talked about the power of positive talking and how in just a few minutes of meditating upon the positive and changing her mindset, something beautiful happened. I was inspired and googled the author she mentioned, which led me to another author: Louise L. Hay. I had heard about her before but had never really gone deep into her work. So I decided to download a few of her audiobooks before going to my retreat. She strongly believes that we can heal ourselves of whatever physical or mental state by looking at our patterns, traumas, changing our vocabulary and most importantly, learn to love ourselves. And I fell in love with her.
So I got to my cabin and thought "now what?". My plan was to let things happen and see what comes. I didn’t want to force any activity like writing, meditating, or anything else, so I went for a walk in the woods and put on the aleatory tracks of Louise's book chapters (if I may use her first name). And there she was, speaking clear and loud: “the word "should" is one of the most damaging words in our language". The teaching was simple and so true, and in fact many of you, like me, might have already had a hit about that. But still, the word "should" was so present in my personal dictionary. How many times have I used it, blaming myself for the challenges I encountered abroad, as in "I should speak better German", "I should be happy I am here", "I should be proud of what I accomplished", "I should be more confident", "I should be more myself" (and what does that even mean??). And this week, which marks my 30th birthday, this topic comes up very strongly for me again and that’s why I want to bring it up with the hope that this will also help you.
Now, be honest with me: how many times do you use "should" to talk about yourself and other people? It might not be easy to admit, but we use it a lot. This doesn’t mean we have a bad intention by doing that! We use it to motivate ourselves to do something we believe will be good for us, to check-in into our tasks, in an attempt to stop procrastination. But we also use it to express frustration, guilt and regret. And my question here is: does it help us, really?
As Louise says, our internal dialogue affects the way we feel about ourselves, how we show up in the world and live our lives. The word "should" has a hidden meaning, so most of us are unaware of its effects. Every time we use "should", we are, in fact, saying "wrong". That means we are either wrong, or we were wrong, or we are going to be wrong. By using the word "should" we are reinforcing a lack of something, we are talking about scarcity. And more than that, we are not accepting the reality, the present moment, ourselves. "Should" shows, most of the time, a lack of self-acceptance rather than real encouragement. We are reinforcing the idea that we’re NOT doing something or that we are NOT in a certain way. Here's an example:
"I should read more often"
The unspoken follow-up to that is that you are not reading enough. The same happens with "I should exercise, meditate, be more patient, be more confident, speak a new language, be more grateful, miss my family less, integrate… you name it. And that doesn’t really help us to get further, to take action, does it? Removing "should" from the dictionary is not easy, but it is certainly possible. Because we don’t need the everyday reinforcement of what we are not. We need to have more freedom of choice and more motivation to move ahead, instead.
When we start paying attention and realizing how much we use the word "should", we can, in fact, force our brain to make a change. "How?" you ask. We can use the words "could" or "want" instead. This is because "could" gives us a choice which doesn’t state that we are wrong in any way. And using "want" gives us a north, it shows us we have clarity on our desires and where we wanna go/ what we want to do.
Once you start doing that, here are three steps that can support you on using less "should" and helping you move forward:
Focus on the benefits: that means, focus on why you want something, the results that it will have in your life and how your life would look like without it.
Focus on how the activity fits with your values: in other words, focus on why this is important to you. When you state that you want something, instead of you "shoulding be doing something", it motivates you to actually have that thing done. And this starts a cycle of integrity in your own word. To do what you say you are going to do helps you generate confidence in yourself. The word "should" subconsciously hides a lot of questions and perhaps that fact that you don’t want that thing, actually, so you don’t do it. That makes you blame yourself for not doing it, and makes you feel less and not enough. By living with integrity, understanding what fits for you and what doesn't, you also start honoring your own worlds and regaining the confidence in yourself.
Focus on accepting and exploring reality: sometimes "should" comes in ways as "I shouldn’t feel like that". I am sure you’ve heard the phrase "what you resist, persists" before. Allow yourself to feel whatever is there. Say to yourself instead "I am feeling/thinking this. I wonder what is happening that makes me feel this way". Even if you don’t get the answer to that question, which most of the times happen, you will notice that the feeling will be less or even disappear. This is because you gave it attention and you didn’t blame yourself for that. That feeling was there for a reason, it was clearly important for you. We have the tendency to put uncomfortable feelings under the carpet, but that doesn’t make them disappear. So why not welcome these feelings instead?
And if you want a more concrete exercise, I’d like to share here with you a tool that I use in my coaching sessions and that have shown a lot of results to my clients. It goes like this:
Make a list of your "shoulds". Write down all the phrases that are on your mind that you think you should be doing, being, thinking.
Read these sentences out loud and rewrite them as "If I really wanted to, I could…".
Ask yourself, for each sentence, why haven’t you done that thing then?
By rewriting the sentences, we put a whole new light on the subject. And by asking why we haven’t done something since "we could if we wanted to", we explore the real reasons underneath.
Maybe you don’t want to do it, maybe you’ve been criticizing yourself for something that was never your idea to do, to begin with. Maybe that was social pressure, a family expectation or someone else said you "should". Dropping this word brings a sense of relief, as you might see, for example, that you might be trying to please people, or being afraid of not feeling good enough based on unreal expectations (I’ve been there too!).
When you go through the second list, you start seeing your life in a different way and releasing the feeling or being wrong. You actually realize what you want to do or not, and that empowers you to take action.
Sometimes it is not easy to do that alone, and that’s why it’s also important to recognize when that's the case and search for professional support if needed. Even as a coach, I need to practice constantly the replacement of my "shoulds", which come in the shape of what I "should" be doing/ what I "should" achieve with my business right now. The famous success vs. failure thought that comes again from external expectations, instead of internal wishes. But remember that to wish you were someone else or doing something else is to waste the person that you are, the moment you are living.
So, what is there on your "should list" that could be dropped with a sense of relief?
Tell me here in the comments! And if you need help in replacing your "shoulds" and enjoying the freedom you deserve in life, book here a FREE first session with me!