Jeffrey Platts

Are You Living In A Prison Of Shoulds?

Written by on June 7, 2010

Are you God?  A fortune teller?  Can you predict the future?

Personally, I can’t predict the future. But my mind thinks it can. Or at least it thinks it can predict what the future (and my life) should look like.  It even passes judgment on what my past should have looked like.  Of course, my mind also loves to tell me how other people should be.  And 9 times out of 10, what my mind thinks my life should look like, doesn’t reflect actually is.

Think about the word “should”.  It often is used as a mental benchmark to say that something is supposed to be different than it is now.  Or something was supposed to have been done that didn’t get done.  But embedded into a should is a judgment that the current reality is somehow bad, or perhaps even more accurately, that YOU are bad.

Pause for a moment and see how the following statements feel to you:

  • “At my age, I should be married with kids by now.”
  • “I shouldn’t have eaten half that cake.”
  • “My boyfriend shouldn’t have dumped me.”
  • “I shouldn’t have this beer belly.”
  • “There shouldn’t be any traffic at this hour!”
  • “That woman shouldn’t be wearing socks with her sandals.”

In those statements, there is an awareness of what you want (marriage and family, healthy eating, connection, a body you love, sockless sandals), yet there is also a feeling that what happened (or is happening) is somehow bad because it’s not what you want.  But reality is reality.  There are always going to be things you want more of and things you want less of.  But the past is done, over, complete.  And the present is simply what is currently so.  To push against it or add judgment to it creates resistance in your energy and pinches yourself off from the joy and power of the present moment.  (And honestly, who gives a crap if someone is wearing socks with sandals?)  If there is something you want, then move toward it because you want it.  No need for the energy of condemnation.  Feel the difference between “I should lose weight. I’m so fat.” and “I weigh 200 pounds and would like to weigh less. How can I make that happen?” And think of when someone says to you “You should smile more!” Isn’t the last thing you want to do is SMILE?

Think back to how you met your last boyfriend or girlfriend, how you got your last job, or how you discovered your favorite hobby.   Chances are, you couldn’t have predicted the who/what/when/where/how of the circumstances that those things came into your life.   Life doesn’t follow a script.  You might think that you are going to meet the love of your life this Friday night between the hours of 10pm and 1am at the cool bar you’ll be at.  But most likely, you won’t.  And by having that fixation of how and when he/she is going to come into your life, you are essentially wearing blinders to all the other opportunities that the Universe is already presenting to you.  Your mind won’t even notice them because it’s so fixated on how it’s “supposed” to come to you.

“Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” – Rumi

And how do you know that what actually happened isn’t for your highest good?  Steve Jobs says that in life it’s impossible to connect the dots looking forward.  You can only do it looking backwards as you see how all the events transpired as part of a perfect tapestry of events.

I noticed this pattern in myself every time I went on vacation.  I had an expectation of how the vacation was supposed to turn out, right down to how good I was supposed to feel during key moments. Of course, I had a good time overall, but because I had this mental benchmark to which I was constantly comparing my actual experience, I prevented myself from simply being present to what was true for me in the moment.  Maybe I wasn’t supposed to feel bouncing-off-the-wall enthusiasm when I swam in the clear blue tropical waters.  Perhaps the quiet, peaceful contentment that arose was what I was meant to experience.  But my “no, this can’t be it” thinking just pushed against what was true for me.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs

You have power and choice in the thoughts you think.  Try playing with how your thoughts feel to you when you think them.  Do they give you a sense of openness, freedom and expansion?  Or do they make you feel contracted, limited, and stressed?  If you’ve constructed a mental prison of shoulds, the good news is that one shift in perspective and “POOF!”, the walls immediately begin to come down.

Here are four suggestions on how to let go of any “shoulds” and open yourself more to the flow of possibilities:

  1. Find appreciation for an “unfortunate” event.  Pick something in your life that you are truly grateful for.  Could be a job, a house, a friend, a lover.  Now take 5 minutes and trace back in time to the how that person or thing came into your life.  Chances are, at some point you will come to find that there was an event that, at the time, seemed horribly “negative” and “shouldn’t” have happened.  Maybe you were fired from a great job, got dumped by who you thought was your perfect partner, or the deal to buy your dream house fell through at the last minute.  But down the road, those dots connected to a present reality that is really, really cool.  I forget where I first heard of this exercise, but it’s really eye-opening!
  2. Reclaim your power in the present moment.   Say you are in a really long, really s-l-o-w m-o-v-i-n-g line at the post office.  The line is there.  It’s moving at the pace it’s moving.  How does it serve or empower you to say that it should be moving faster when it isn’t?  But be aware that this is tricky because your mind will use this against you and say “Oh no, I shouldn’t be thinking this thought.”  That’s not the intention here. Simply notice the thought, bring some space and awareness around it. From that awareness, you can choose a new perspective.  Another trick is to rephrase “should” into “could”.  “I should work out more” becomes “I could work out more”.  The second phrasing becomes a possibility to choose, rather than a judgment to obey. You don’t “have” to do diddely squat. What you “can” do is infinite.
  3. Set intentions yet also be open to possibilities.  The Universe has a birds eye view of you and your life.  It has a much better view of what beautiful things you can experience than your own view from the ground.  Set an intention for the things, people and experiences you want to attract, while also being open to the Universe surprising you with something even better.
  4. Question your thoughts.  A powerful tool is Byron Katie’s Four Questions.  It’s a simple process you can use anytime to take a thought that’s causing you suffering and stress and to really investigate it and see if it’s really true.  The end result is usually a greater sense of relief, peace and empowerment.  Download the free worksheet here:

Jeffrey Platts is a men's coach and authentic communication expert who is passionate about helping men create amazing relationships with women. With over 20 years of personal study and transformational training, he has led nearly 200 workshops and retreats on personal growth, dating, and communication. Jeffrey's work and writing has been featured in the Huffington Post, Washington Post, ABC News, Authentic Man Program and the Good Men Project. He brings a rich toolbox of insights and experiences to his facilitation, integrating his adventures as DJ, amateur stand-up comedian, salsa dancer, yoga teacher and world traveler.