Have you ever thought to yourself, “I should be… slimmer, smarter, more easy-going, relaxed and happy, or productive?” If you have, how has it made you feel when you don’t meet your expectations? Do you believe your children should be… obedient, honest, healthy, athletic, clever, progressing? How has it made you feel when they are not? Do you feel frustrated, disappointed, angry, despairing, unhappy? The problem with thinking that things SHOULD be a certain way, is that when they are not, we are burdened by the disparity. Frustration arises when our expectations don’t align with reality.
Some psychologists term this kind of thinking the ‘Tyranny of the shoulds’. It describes an inflexible way of thinking; whether it be about how we perceive ourselves and our performance, how others should be and behave, or our expectations of how life should be. We may not recognise that our thinking is rigid, (in one or more of these areas) however if we feel discouraged and miserable when life turns out differently to what we hoped for, it can be a sign that our thinking is unhelpful. It wasn’t until someone recently highlighted to me that I am burdened by some ‘shoulds’, that I began to identify those problem beliefs, and then sought to change them. Two firm beliefs that were causing me frustration were:
- I should be able to achieve and do more than I am.
- Since my kids are at school, they shouldn’t need me during school hours.
What alerted me to my problem thinking, (with the help of a counsellor) was recognising the negative emotions I attached to particular things. One, was my growing sense of hopelessness that all I did in my day as a Mum didn’t feel like it amounted to much. Another was my frustration whenever children needed me during school hours; interrupting my day/work. I thought about all the days that had been swallowed up with children’s needs, and the all the writing opportunities missed and I felt a great sense of discouragement. The thought that went through my head on repeat was, “I’m a stay at home mother with four kids at school, why am I unable to get my work done? I SHOULD be writing more. Other mothers with kids at school manage to work full-time and do everything, why can’t I? My kids SHOULDN’T need me this much.”
I was holding myself to an unrealistic standard. I had not stopped to consider there was a more helpful, realistic and flexible way of viewing my present circumstances. With some encouragement and practice, I began to think more flexibly. Rather than believing I should be able achieve all of my work everyday, I begun to think, “I would prefer to end my day knowing that everything I planned to achieve was accomplished. However, life is full of interruptions and unforeseen events. If I don’t get everything done…there is always tomorrow. Not completing my ‘to-do-list’ is no reflection on my competency.”
As to thinking my children would never need me in school hours. I began to think, “While I would prefer that my children didn’t need me within those hours, it is not realistic that everyday will be like that. They too are learning and dealing with life and all its complexities. There are times when they are doing well and thriving (not needing so much help), and there are times when they need extra support. Part of my role and work as a Mum, is being available for those times.”
While these are my particular challenges that I’ve needed to address and rethink, you may have a different set of shoulds that cause you frustration. It may be things to do with your relationships; how you expect others to treat you. It may be how you think about your appearance; “I should look young and slim”. It may be high standards you place on yourself; your capabilities, intelligence, ability to make friends, your personality even. Or it may be about your kids and what you expect they should be doing. Whatever your circumstances are, if you are holding a belief as a ‘must’ rather than a preference then it might be helpful to rethink what you believe.
Learning to change our shoulds to preferences; our musts to wishes, is the beginning of a more helpful approach to life’s challenges. It is having a more resilient mindset; one that is flexible and willing to think differently. It takes time to make a mental change, it requires being patient with yourself, and being self-disciplined. And when you fall into old habits of thinking, be kind to yourself… then remind yourself of what is true.