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Living in the Land of Should

by Harinder Ghatora Mental Wellbeing Balanced Living Personal Empowerment

Do you live in the ‘land of should’?

Do you find yourself doing what you should be doing and not what you want to be doing all the time?

Are you the one always doing the ‘right thing’ by everyone else? So much so that you have lost touch with your innate sense of fun, creativity and spontaneity?

Or, maybe on the odd occasion you have tried to do what you like, only to find yourself riddled with feelings of guilt.

We’ve all been there. I’m guessing that if you share my background, you know this land very well. I lived there during my younger adult life:

  • Always looking happy when really I was stressed and very unhappy;

  • Always being hospitable when I just wanted to be left alone;

  • Always cooking proper meals from scratch even when I was exhausted;

  • Cleaning when I really just wanted to sit and watch TV;

  • Attending distant family events when I wanted quiet weekends at home.

The list goes on.

Over the years I realised that there is only one road in the land of ‘should’; a one-way road that leads to misery, anxiety and despair.

I left a long time ago.

Nowadays I get to visit the ‘land of should’ through my work. If there is one word that crops up again and again it is ‘should’. And, where there is a ‘should’ there is usually ‘guilt’ just a breath away. I repeatedly see this word linked to feelings of:

  • frustration,

  • tension,

  • resentment,

  • and, powerlessness.

I struggle to find any positive uses for this word. The only thing it appears to do is deprive people of their freedom, power and happiness.

So What Does ‘Should’ Mean?

A dictionary definition is:

“(a word) used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticising someone’s actions.”

There are two things here: the matter of ‘shoulding’ on others, and the matter of ‘shoulding’ on yourself.

‘Shoulding’ on Others

I’m guessing we all have these people in our lives. You know the ones…they spend all their time telling you:

  • how you should be behaving,

  • what you should be doing,

  • what you should be eating,

  • what you should be wearing,

  • where you should be going,

  • who you should be hanging around with,

  • even what you should be thinking.

I don’t like being ‘shoulded’ on so I try very hard not to ‘should’ on others.

When we ‘should’ on someone else, we impose our beliefs onto them. We do not truly understand where the other person is in their life; the challenges they are facing, their experiences to date, or their beliefs and desires.

Fundamentally, ‘shoulding’ is a matter of power; you strip the person of their power and, worse still, you yield power over them.

‘Shoulding’ on someone comes from the position of:

“I am not OK with you the way you are, I understand your situation better than you do, and I am an authority on this.”

“I’m cleverer than you and I know what is best for you.”

“You are stupid.”

This is not respectful or empathic. Is it a surprise that we all react negatively to a ‘should’?

‘Shoulding’ on Yourself

The second matter is the one I witness a lot in my work. It is the ‘shoulding’ of the self.

This is caused by being ‘shoulded’ on so much by others (family/friends/media) that we internalise other people’s wishes and ideals, and start to judge ourselves against these.

We become our own worst enemy. We impose exceptionally high standards of behaviour onto ourselves and then proceed to judge ourselves harshly whenever we fall short. And, as the expectations are often unrealistic, this happens quite often.

When we use the word “should” on ourselves, we want things to be different to how they actually are and, furthermore, we feel guilty about them not being that way. This subtly begins to erode our self-image and can, over a period of time, lead to feelings of powerlessness and low self esteem. We begin to feel bad about ourselves; inadequate, imperfect and unhappy.

A more subtle implication is that we are not taking full personal responsibility for our own life; we are assessing everything from an external reference point (someone else’s opinion on how things should be) as opposed to an internal one (how you want things to be). It is dramatically more useful and powerful to make a decision to do something from a place of genuine desire than from a place of obligation.

We are also taken so far away from our true selves, because we are living life from someone else’s perspective, that we lose touch with who we truly are. We no longer know what makes us happy, or how to have fun.

  • Our responsibilities begin to feel overwhelming, burdensome, and start to weigh us down.

  • We feel tense all the time for no apparent reason. (It is hard work keeping up the act. This internal tension creates anxiety and stress.)

  • Our power is taken away from us because we are living someone else’s life.

  • We begin to feel trapped.

  • We begin to feel despair.

  • We begin to ask ourselves: What is the point of life? What am I getting out of this?

  • We start to resent the people around us. Does anyone even notice, or care that I am sacrificing so much of myself for them?

  • Ultimately, all this culminates in feelings of confusion, anguish and internal turmoil.

How Did We Get into The ‘Land of Should’

For many of us, the root of this issue can be found in our upbringing. We have been given crystal clear instructions on what the expected norms of behaviour are if we are to get any positive regard from anyone. And, coupled with the misguided belief that what others think of us is of the utmost importance, we unwittingly walk into the land of should and then can’t find a way out.

I have first hand experience of this process. As an example, somewhere along the line I internalised a belief that ‘I should always appear to be happy and accommodating of others no matter what is going on in my internal or external world.” There is even a saying in my culture about not having frown lines on your forehead… ever.

Now, how realistic is that? Is it possible for a human being to always be happy? To always be accommodating? I think not.

This single misbelief led to me subjecting myself to a ridiculous amount of pressure which all culminated in generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder and agrophobia.

Leaving the ‘Land of Should’

So, how do you get out of the ‘land of should’?

There are lots of ways of regaining your personal power.

Simply understanding the process outlined above is enough to raise self awareness and draw attention to the prevalence of the issue in your life.

But, if you’re looking for something specific you can do, here is a very simple technique that can start the process of reclaiming your power.

Let’s use the following example:

A friend, who is a single parent, texts and asks you to look after her four-year old daughter at the last minute. You had already planned to study on that day.

1) The first thing to do is notice any feelings of unrest that this request may trigger.

You may be perfectly content in saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this request, in which case there is no problem. But, if there is any internal conflict between ‘wanting to study’ and ‘babysitting’ you will experience some sort of negative internal sensation.

2) If you do notice any tension within yourself, identify the ‘should’ in the situation.

Sometimes you may have to think about it for a moment but it will be there somewhere. In this case it could simply be: “She’s my friend, she has no-one else and I should help her.”

3) Now in your mind rephrase the statement by replacing the ‘should’ with a ‘could’. “She’s my friend and I could help her.”

Can you feel the energetic difference between these two sentences?

“I should help her” feels tight, rigid, almost like being in a strait-jacket. There is no room for maneuver; no way out; no choice. It leaves you feeling powerless.

“I could help her” on the other hand feels very different. It feels lighter, freer and, most importantly, it feels like suddenly there is a choice. There is a real decision to be made and where there is a decision there is scope for exercising (and reclaiming) your personal power. You may still end up doing ‘the right thing’ (whatever that is for you) but this time your decision has come from an empowered place and not a disempowered place.

4) Now spend a moment or two seriously considering the pros and cons of each scenario:

“I could help her. She is my friend. She is a single-parent. She has no-one else to turn to. She is always there for me when I need help. I suppose I could always study tomorrow. Anyway I like spending time with her daughter. We could go out and have some fun. I’ll say ‘yes’.”


“I could help her but I have an exam on Monday and I really can’t give up my whole day to baby-sit. If I had known earlier in the week I would have studied then and been free to help today. She may get upset with me but I’ll just have to live with it until it blows over. I’ll say ‘no’.”

Do you notice the difference the word ‘could’ made?

When we have consciously decided to do something because we have weighed up the advantages and disadvantages then we are operating in the realms of our power. When we just respond to a ‘should’ from a place of obligation, we are not.

Furthermore, if we do things out of a sense of duty, more often than not, we resent the fact (resent ourselves for giving in and resent the other person for putting us in that position.)

Our feelings are always a give-away. Where there is some sort of internal conflict, you will feel it in your body. It can show up as irritation, anger, resentment, anxiety, sadness, despair, guilt, even fear.

So next time you feel this kind of tension welling up inside yourself, identify and eliminate the ‘should’. It may take a little practice, but it will over time, gently escort you out of the ‘land of should’ into the land of joy and empowerment.

Remember: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are” – Chinese Proverb

Harinder Ghatora Tel: 07969 807934 Email: info@harinderghatora.co.uk