The Tyranny of Must and Should

“I must decorate the house.” “I should loose some weight.” “I really must tidy up the garden.” “I should get a promotion or a new job.” “I should make sure my kids have a home cooked meal at the table every night, using cutlery and table manners.” “I should keep busy.” Whose thoughts are these? They are in my head, but I’m not sure they are really mine.

The clues are in the “musts” and “shoulds.”  Pretty much any time we notice ourselves or someone else using these words, there is another voice present. And surprise, surprise, it’s often a parent, although it could be a teacher, friend, boss or partner.

When we are children, our parents are there to watch over us every minute, to keep us safe, teach us to behave well and be sociable.  As we get older, teachers and other adults also take on part of this role. By the time we are old enough to act independently and look after ourselves without constant supervision, we have internalised the voices of our parents and teachers.  Even though they are not physically there to watch over us, their voices are inside us, keeping us safe, well-behaved and sociable.

A child starts to walk to school on their own and their parent’s voice inside their head reminds them to look carefully before they cross the road.  Teenagers are starting to think for themselves, and reject some of this parental guidance, but nevertheless, the internal parental voice will guide them some of the time, though probably not as often as the parents would like.

Parental voices become our conscience and our guide. Our values and moral compass are developed out of these voices, and our inner health and safety monitor is too. Most of the time, this is a good thing. It keeps us safe. It helps us uphold good values. It helps us fit into society and hold down jobs. Most of the people who created our internal dialogue meant well! We should be grateful to them.

But sometimes these voices create a prison of “musts” that don’t serve us so well. “I must tidy the house,” is ok if it stops the house from becoming an unsanitary tip, but not so good if it means I can never relax in my own house. “I must get a promotion” could help me to work hard and achieve my potential, which could be satisfying, but it could also prevent me from seeing what will really bring me satisfaction at work and take me into a role that doesn’t meet my creative needs. “I must keep busy” makes me very productive, but sometimes stops me from enjoying the present moment or taking time to reflect.

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So, maybe it is time to notice all those “musts” and “shoulds” in our internal dialogue, and ask how well they are serving us. It is time to notice who exactly is telling us what to do and how to behave and whether we still like their advice. We need a little quiet time with ourselves to find our true selves and intentions. We need to find values and goals that reflect our authentic selves.

i genuinely would like my kids to have a healthy meal as a family most nights, but no harm will come to us if we eat pizza with our fingers in front of the telly once a week. In fact, it is fun and brings us closer. I do like stretch, creativity and challenge at work, but a promotion isn’t necessarily my best path to a satisfying role. I like to potter about in the garden, and it doesn’t matter if it is a bit untidy; in fact it might even encourage the wildlife. As long as the house isn’t a health hazard, it is fine. And being healthy is more important to me than being thin.

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