Throwing out the ‘shoulds’don’t let conformity rule your life

In my private practice, we often talk about the ‘shoulds’ – those expectations which can sometimes rule the way that we live our lives. These ‘shoulds’ can sometimes give us a sense of safety as they can direct our behaviour along traditional, expected routes, which don’t challenge us or surprise us

However, they can also be constricting and prevent us from behaving as we really want to. Who decides what we ‘should’ or ‘must’ do? Surely that decision is entirely individual, not something that should be imposed on us?

Often when we talk about this in the counselling room, clients will find it difficult to have the confidence to break out of expectations which have in fact been imposed on them. Think, for example, of the ‘shoulds’ that can often cause real issues for people:

‘It’s a family tradition to go into medicine. You should study medicine at University too’

‘You’ve been with your partner for a while now. You should be having children.’

‘Your siblings are doing really well for themselves, so you should be looking for a better job now.’

These types of expectations can cause problems for several reasons:

  • They may be in direct contrast with what we really want to do. This presents us with a stark choice – do we follow our heart and risk upsetting others or do we give into pressure and conform, knowing that we are not being true to ourselves..?
  • They create sometimes unrealistic expectations. Comparing siblings or other family members, for example, doesn’t allow for individual differences and can feel intensely pressurizing. If we simply can’t achieve to the same level as our siblings, we can often feel like a failure and this can lead to issues with confidence and self-esteem.
  • It can be difficult sometimes to even know what we want to do, when others are so quick to place their own expectations on us. Finding the authentic YOU is so much easier when you are left to your own devices!

So, how can we dispense with the ‘shoulds’ and re-connect with our ‘wants’ instead?

  • It’s important to take the time to reflect on our own needs, emotions and wishes. We don’t live in a bubble, of course, but we need to challenge what others want or expect and then consider what is actually best for us.
  • It’s easy to fall into the trap of justifying things to others – but we simply don’t have to do this. We are all entitled to carve out our own way in the world – and that’s our right.
  • We all tend to placate others by using the medium of apology! When we apologise, however, we are implying that we have done something wrong. That sends out the wrong message when actually we are simply doing what we choose to. We are not rejecting anybody else’s views – just following our own path.
  • Of course, just as others impose expectations on us, we need to be mindful not to to project our views and wishes onto others. Watch out for projection – it works both ways!

Getting over the ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ can be difficult at first. Perhaps you have been conforming for much of your life and it’s become a habit. There is always opportunity for change, however, and you will get there if you work at it. Conforming to other people’s ‘shoulds’ is an unhelpful thinking pattern as it doesn’t take into account, what you really want out of life. It’s YOUR life and you really can live it the way that you want to.