Monday, July 11, 2011

The Underlying Should

My wife and I started attending a perinatal loss support group not long after we lost our daughter, Stella. It has been quite helpful to share our story with others and to hear what others have been through. I was amazed at how common infant loss really is, whether it's in the form of miscarriage or still birth or some other form death before a child's first birthday. The statistics are quite humbling, and it's safe to say that you know someone, or know someone that knows someone, who has experienced a loss of this nature. People just don't talk about it, which is why support groups, both online and in person, are so helpful.

In one of our discussions at a recent support group meeting we were talking about interpersonal relationships, and one of the men said that he didn’t like to be “should on.” When he felt like someone was telling him how he should feel, or what he should do, he would tell them, “Don’t should on me!” I’ve known for some time that “should” was a word to watch out for, but I was glad to hear someone else acknowledge it.

“Should” is often used in a way that implies we know how things are supposed to be (“supposed to” is another way of saying “should”). This implies that we know how life should be unfolding in any given situation. We get upset or experience some form of frustration when we're wrong about things, which is why we never really allow ourselves to admit when we're wrong. Instead of accepting being wrong, we declare our rightness by saying things should be different in order for them to be right, or at least meet our vision of what's right. So, you could say that no one is ever wrong about anything and that it’s the world that’s wrong, which explains a great deal about human conflict -- both internal and external.

Though “should” usually comes from a place of “I know best,” it doesn’t always come across as negative. It can be as innocent as, “You should try some of this pie,” or some other type of invitation, or positive encouragement to join in something someone thinks you would enjoy. But it can be a slippery slope to more negative things if you decline an invitation but are continually pressured, or made to feel bad for declining. A slight shift can also turn an invitation into a suggestion with negative undertones, like, “You should really stop eating pie.”

As you can see there is a gray area, and the person being "should upon" could easily feel like a victim regardless of the intentions of the "shoulder." However, most people are well-intentioned since they think they're right about everything. They are just innocently trying to make everything else right that they see wrong, or make everything the way it should be. Makes sense doesn't it? After all, that's what we’ve been doing all along.

The bottom line is that the word "should" is usually at the root of all mental or emotional suffering. Look at any aspect of your life that makes you feel angry, sad, frustrated, etc., then look for the "should." When you feel a negative emotion, it typically means that something is wrong, as in something out there doesn't mesh with the way things are supposed to be.

The root “should” will take various forms. “He shouldn’t have said that.” “She should treat me better.” “He should be more understanding.” “I should have reacted differently.” “I should be able to afford nicer things.” In the context of our recent loss, the underlying should would be, "My baby should not have died." It all boils down to one central theme, “Things should be different than they are.” The effects of a “should” range from mild frustration to deep sorrow, but you can always find a “should” where suffering is apparent.

How can I stop shoulding on myself and others? I can notice it. I can look for it when I feel upset and question it. Is it true that this or that should have happened or not happened? How did I get to be all knowing enough to decide what should or should not be? I can’t possibly know the reason behind things that happen, and I can second guess them to death, but it just leads to more suffering. I’ve found that it’s much more helpful to recognize that “what is” could not be otherwise. Acceptance of “what is” is the only antidote for compulsive shoulding, and is also the key to peace. Acceptance is a way of saying, “Things are exactly as they should be, whether I can see any logic to it or not.”

Be careful not to should on yourself for shoulding. That just leads to circular frustration and is a form of not accepting your own habitual tendencies. In other words, don’t think that you should be more accepting than you are. Just notice when a “should” appears and look at it without judgment. Gradually the “shoulds” will become more apparent and cease to arise as much, or at least lose their power to cause suffering.

When it comes to relating to others, watch for “shoulding on another shoulder.” In other words, when someone else tells you what you should or should not be doing, and you say, “Don’t should on me,” it’s another way of telling them what they should not be doing. By all means, feel free to call someone out if you feel so compelled, just notice that you are matching their “should” with your own. Another option in that situation is to notice that they are doing to you what you have been doing to yourself and others all of your life: acting out of habitual tendency. When you notice their “should” without judgement or “counter-shoulding,” conflicts (internal and external) quickly subside along with the negative feelings that typically arise when you are being “should upon.”

You can’t do this life thing wrong, but you can live with more peace when you get tired of suffering. So, consider this to be a polite invitation to see what it’s like without “shoulds.”

Be well,