The Shameful Versus the Sacred Shoulds
It took the Universe fourteen billion years to make YOU. There are a lot of things that you “Should” be doing. But let’s talk about this idea of the Should.
“Should” has become a dirty word. “Shoulds”, “Have Tos”, “Musts”, and their fellow brethren have earned themselves the honor (or dishonor) of being called anathema (wrong or bad) in the “Go-Get-Em’” world, in the realms of self-exploration and growth practices such as therapy and especially in coaching. The usual definitions aside, of which there are many, “should” has become a word that we use to denote some undesired obligation. “I SHOULD go to the gym (or ____ fill in blank here).” or “I SHOULD do all my homework (or _____) today.” and “I SHOULD be a better person.” If you go look up the actual definition, you’ll quickly find that there are many meanings of “should” and that sometimes, the lists don’t seem to agree what “should” be the first definition (see, there’s another use and meaning). Check out this Google Search and see what I mean.
For the purpose of this article, we will be exploring the “ought to / have to / must / etc) form of “Should”, used in the examples offered above. But, and I’m going to throw a major wrench into this, I actually believe that we “Should” be “Shoulding”, if you will. So, let’s talk about what I call the Shameful Shoulds versus the Sacred Shoulds. First, the usual sense of the term.
As I mentioned, in the realms of the self-exploration and growth practices such as therapy or coaching, “should” denotes something you are telling yourself that you “have to” do but usually don’t want to. These are the “Shoulds” we use on ourselves, usually with much berating, allowing our Inner Critics full reign to stomp about and order us around. “I SHOULDN’T be so lazy!” you tell yourself, for the umpteenth time, when you feel you aren’t doing the things you need to complete, whatever those things may be. I call these the “Shameful Shoulds”. We use “should” in this regard for the sole purpose of shaming ourselves. It may “look” motivational, it may “seem” to have some pushing purpose behind it, but hands down, it’s just weaponry for your Inner Critics to gleefully brandish about before poking you in the tender underbelly with the sharpened point.
And it hurts, too. When you have used “Should” in this fashion, did you feel joyful, jumping up and down with eagerness to do this command? I’m going to bet that you felt not so great when employing a Shameful Should. You know, deep down, where this injunction is really coming from. You know its use of Shame to manipulate, even if not consciously. Your body tells you immediately, even if you aren’t really paying attention. There’s that sinking feeling somewhere, maybe your chest or your stomach, or in your head. A sensation I’ve often heard described as “dread” arises, again, somewhere in your body; a deadweight and heavy quality, oppressive in its insistence, a tingling at the back of your neck perhaps, tightening and contracting muscles, maybe nausea. Perhaps, there is an overtone hint of hopelessness. “I SHOULD be doing ____, but I don’t really want to, so now I’m stuck in a conundrum.” It’s a state of futility (which can breed depression if left unprocessed).
And there’s the rub. Because it probably IS something that you need to do. Doing homework or house chores or paying the bills or indeed, even going to the gym and being a better person ARE things that you maybe “need” to do. But the Shaming of the Shameful Shoulds breeds contempt, resistance, the “okay, fine I’ll do it but I won’t like it” and we either freeze in a paralytic state and do nothing (which kind of IS doing something with inaction) or we wobble off resentfully to do the thing which needs doing.
You can see why the self-exploration fields tend to bracket this Should and encourage people to try to stop using the word and transform “should” to “I want to”. The intent is beautiful, of course. We would be in a very different world if we could look out eagerly upon it daily and happily and joyfully say, “I want to!” There are whole workshops and seminars about this very thing, transforming your “Do I have to?” to “I eagerly want to!” I would argue though, that in the very nature of the Shameful Shoulds, this is probably not going to work. There are shitty things we have to do out there or face consequences. We must do our homework or earn a bad grade. We must pay our bills or lose power, water, shelter. In a way, we must be good people or earn the castigation (criticism) of our peers or community. And it can suck. You can still plod along and not feel very joyous but still quite resentful about it all. And as long as you are employing the Shameful Shoulds, this is likely to be your course.
Is there a solution to this? Yes, there actually is (and it’s not to transform to glee, either, nor even to use the “other” Should). We’ll talk about this later.
Now, let’s talk about the “other” Should, which I call the Sacred Shoulds. Because I truly believe that it took 14 billion years to get to you, to me, to your neighbor down the street, and because we are quite truly complex organisms with the capacity for depth, growth and amazing creativity; I believe that each one of us was given a unique gift that only we (individually) can manifest into the world. And the Universe didn’t spend its time shaping you just for you to hoard that gift for yourself. Yeah, I’m saying you “SHOULD” be engaging that gift in a way that puts it out for the Universe and everyone in it to “see”. No pressure or anything. This is a different kind of “Should”, though. There isn’t Shame here. Rather than a “have to”, you might think of it perhaps as a “Tasked Obligation” or maybe even a “Sacred Duty or Calling”.
And I am still not implying this suddenly changes to a delighted, engaged “Whoopee, now I am fully ‘wanting to’ do all the things!” Oh no, there’s probably not going to be that off the bat. Maybe interwoven in this engagement of one’s gift, there will be this feeling, but getting there, and even living in that space, is going be gritty and hardcore. One of my favorite theorists is Dr. Jane McGonigal, a think tank game designer who uses the word “gameful” instead of “joyful” to denote this intense, focused, gritty, not-necessarily-fun space in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.
But, and hear me clearly here, there will not be Shame attached to a Sacred Should. You might get the Grumpies, you might waffle about, you might moan (a lot), but you won’t feel Shame. Deep down, this isn’t fodder for your Inner Critics, in fact, they might be a bit worried about these particular Shoulds as they are pointing you in a direction they usually don’t want you to go. They know it and you know it, and what you feel is not sick, bad, sinking down or dread. You will not have that sense of futility. Sure, you might be confused or lost in how to approach the engagement and service of your gift, but it’s a very different space from the Shameful Shoulding. AND this is not to say that the Shameful Shoulds won’t rear their heads during this process. “I SHOULD go do that thing for my unique gift thing.” But there is a huge difference between the two.
And how do you tell that difference and what’s the solution to those horrible Shameful Shoulds? Well, I’ve already mentioned the answer to the first, you tell the difference by listening in to your body very closely and attentively because it’s likely going to be the first message you get. You can build this skill with meditation, therapy or working with someone like me, a guide to help you light your way. Your body will tell you right away, if not instantly, which Should you are employing in the moment. If you feel that “bad” feeling, you’ve got a Shameful Should on your hands. If you feel some potential interest towards something “gift-like”, even if somewhat underlaid by “affable grumpiness” (grumpy that doesn’t really have real irritability at its root), you’ve likely got a Sacred Should.
And here’s the second piece, you can “transform” the Shameful Shoulds from being fodder for Inner Critics by recognizing “choice”. You have the choice in everything you do even if it seems like you don’t. You can absolutely choose not to do the homework or pay the bills. Hands down, you can choose that. And yes, there are consequences. So, essentially, you are choosing positive or negative outcomes. Which one feels better? It’s far harder to resent a “Should” when you’ve turned it into a Choice. And it still doesn’t have to be gleeful and delighted, but that would be nice too. Fully recognizing, and here’s the catch – accepting, that it is a choice you make, can ease a lot of the Shameful Shoulds. You can work on the whole, “I LOVE THIS!!!” later.
So, you make the choice to do something, anything, in your life to circumvent the Shameful Shoulds and you turn towards what you Should be doing, recognizing, uncovering, developing and sharing your unique gift the Universe gave you to Give. No pressure or anything.