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  • Writer's picturePaula Azevedo, PhD

Noticing the Shoulds

In this five part series about self-compassion I’ve already shared with you two strategies to cultivating more compassion and especially self-compassion in your life. I shared how to intentionally include positive moments during your day and how to develop a gratitude practice. In today's post I’m going to share with you another way to cultivate self-compassion, which is noticing the “shoulds” in your self-talk.

Have you ever said to yourself or someone else: ”I should be…” or “They should be…”? For example, during holiday or on your weekends you might hear yourself saying, “I should be grading papers;” or “I should be planning”. Or maybe your “shoulds” are about family obligations or your state of mind or about your physical appearance. These “shoulds” can easily consume our thoughts and we can quickly replay our favorite “shoulds” over and over again. As my teacher Shell Fisher says, “we ‘should’ all over ourselves.”

When we pause to question and be curious about the “shoulds” that we repeat to ourselves or others, we may realize that underneath that “should” is something more pernicious. There may be guilt, inadequateness, unworthiness, perhaps regret, unmet expectations, or past stories that you don’t even realize you’re still carrying. Dr. Kristin Neff has found in her research that “the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” Many of us have unconsciously bought into that message, but it’s those moments that we’re “shoulding” all over ourselves that we can practice self-compassion. Just the noticing of the “should” can be a great start to cultivating more compassion and self-compassion.

You can start by inviting yourself to simply count the number of times you say the word “should” to yourself or someone else throughout the day. This takes mindful concentration and a practice of noticing. If being mindful of your self-talk seems daunting then start small by counting the number of times you say “should” the first few hours after waking up. Either way, the number of times you say “should” may be revealing. It might help you notice that you’re “shoulding all over yourself.”

You can take an additional step by inviting yourself to be mindful of your self-talk, in other words pay attention to what you’re saying and what’s behind the self-talk. You start by noticing when you say the word “should.” When you hear yourself saying it pause and be really curious about the word “should.” What do you really mean by “should”? Where is this “should” coming from? Is this an old story from your past? Is the “should” that you’re carrying from someone else or is this truly your belief? Is this “should” coming from a sense of obligation? Is this “should” a criticism? What you’re doing is noticing what the “should” really means. This exercise can be really powerful. You can start to unpack some of the ways you’re being self-critical or critical of others. Or, even what your expectations are and where they’re not being met, or you might uncover something else. Remember as you’re investigating the “should” be gentle with yourself. There’s no need to be self-critical or judgmental during this practice.

You can practice this noticing of your “shoulds” and begin to drop the “shoulds” that are toxic, that are not serving you or anyone else. However, this isn’t something that you do for 10 minutes and voila the “shoulds” simply disappear in your life and your self-talk is positive and filled with rainbows and sunshine. No. This is a practice. We’re humans, living very imperfect, human lives, with constant change and challenges. Once you drop one “should” perhaps another “should” emerges, and another and another. Sometimes the “shoulds” we thought we got rid of a long time ago resurface. It’s really easy to become frustrated by this and judge yourself for not “getting it right.” There’s no “getting it right or wrong”. This is a practice and with this practice you may begin to notice that you are more self-accepting. You accept both the parts of yourself that you love and even the parts of yourself that you dislike. With each moment that we notice and are genuinely curious about the “shoulds” in our lives we open ourselves up to more compassion.

Being compassionate and especially self-compassionate is a lifelong practice, but it can become easier the more we cultivate it in our lives.

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