How many times have you told yourself you shouldn’t? You shouldn’t have done that, eaten that, be feeling that, or have been that. This is “shoulding” on yourself, a term first coined by Albert Ellis. You likely also “should” on your life telling yourself it shouldn’t be this way, this hard, this frustrating, or this stressful. “Shoulding” is ubiquitous. As humans, we do it all the time. The problem is that it makes us miserable. Here’s why.
Whenever we use the word “should” we come from a place of non-acceptance. When we think we or something shouldn’t be the way it is, we are fighting reality. A fight with terrible odds; reality will win and we will lose. How do we lose? By becoming less happy, less content, and less motivated. Don’t believe me? Try an experiment. Notice and become aware of your thoughts. Notice how you feel before and after each time that you make a “should” statement.
An example may help: Suppose you had a rough day and you find we are feeling sad. What happens if, in response to our sadness, you tell yourself you shouldn’t be feeling sad. You might say to yourself, “I should not feel this way. After all, plenty of people have more difficult lives that I do. What right do I have to feel sad?” Does that line of thinking help you feel less sad? Actually, it is likely to increase your sadness and lead to another unpleasant feeling. Why? Because it is invalidating and fights reality. The reality is you feel sad. Telling yourself you shouldn’t feel this way only adds a layer of unhelpful guilt to what you are currently experiencing.
It’s important to know that you don’t mean to be hindering yourself in this way. In fact, we usually have the best intentions when we tell ourselves we or something shouldn’t be the way it is. We often believe that by asserting this it will somehow motivate us to do something about it. Or we think if we protest loudly enough by expressing our understandable dissatisfaction, someone will realize just how wrong the situation is, come to our rescue, and fix it for us. In either case, we end up getting the opposite result we hoped for. We end up less motivated to do something to help the situation and others, rather than feeling drawn to help us, are driven away by our negativity. With the best of intentions, we end up reinforcing what we don’t want and closing ourselves off to the change we do want.
Another reason we persist in “shoulding:” We humans are natural born problem solvers. And we are often quite good at it. We start to think that we can “fix” everything about ourselves and our lives. The problem is, some things (people especially!) do not lend themselves to being “fixed.” We find we need a different paradigm than the problem-solving one. Acceptance is that paradigm .
The power of cultivating acceptance is widely known. So much so that it in psychology, many different theories and schools of thought advocate for its benefits. These include: Humanistic/Client Centered Therapy, Cognitive Therapy, Interpersonal Process, Solution-Focused, Mindfulness, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
It is helpful to first clarify what acceptance isn’t. It does not mean you approve of, like, or condone what you accept. It means that you adopt the radically different perspective that you acknowledge and accept yourself and reality as it is in this moment. Acceptance can be applied to our past (what has happened) and our present (what is happening now) but not the future. In this way, acceptance is freeing rather than limiting. It opens us up by accepting that we do not know what the future will bring.
A tricky and wonderful paradox: When we accept someone and something as it is, it can change. Why? Because when we stop fighting reality, we get all our resources back. When we accept how things are in the present, we are freed of their power over us. We can chose to stay as we are or to make changes because we know we can accept whatever those changes bring. No more self-condemnation for making a mistake, no more being upset about the way things are since we know: 1) We can accept and handle the present situation and 2) The present does not necessarily determine our future.
What would happen if you approached our earlier example with acceptance rather than “shoulding?” You’ve had a rough day and you feel sad. You chose to accept that you are feeling sad right now and you accept that feeling sad is not horrible but rather a normal response to a rough day. As you accept and sit with the sadness, you find it stays a while and then fades. And that feeling sad wasn’t really so terrible. Not pleasant, but not so bad it needs to be avoided either. You have learned something valuable.
So go ahead, begin to gently notice when you should on yourself and your life and gently being to practice accepting yourself and things as they are. Please remember, full acceptance is an ideal goal. It is not something you will do easily or naturally at first. Give yourself time and approach this task with curiosity and patience. In time, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised with what you find.