Stepping Out of the "Should" Trap

It’s amazing how many of us feel like we “should” do things in our lives.

“I should visit my elderly mom more often.”

“I should lose weight.”

“I should make more money.”

“I should get a job using my degree.”

“I should say yes when I really want to say no.”

We let the guilt and shame of expectations of others inform our decisions and our actions. It’s as though we’re flashing a billboard to others saying “Being me isn’t okay!” Jo Holsten, author of DailyGood: Stepping Out of the “Should” Trap, points out that most of us internalize both the messages and the method of the “shoulds.”

According to Holsten, our lives are saturated with societal norms of success, beauty, intellect, strength, femininity, masculinity, ad infinitum. The “should” messages are familiar to all of us. So much so that most likely we don’t even realize it. How often does a “should” message conflict with your values? Your ideals? Your beliefs? Your being yourself? When you live a life of “shoulds,” you find yourself in an impossible situation. I should know. I do this all the time. I end up being disappointed with myself or fearful of disappointing others. I become stuck between a rock and a hard place.

When living a life of “shoulds,” I felt guilt, shame, and fear that other people would disapprove and judge me negatively. I couldn’t find genuine fulfillment. I felt lost, far away from the ideas, needs, and values that I authentically desired. As I went through a particularly difficult period in my life, I realized how much I relied on the approval and expectations of others. I lost myself. When push came to final shove, those people with such high expectations of me, the “should” people, disappeared in my life. As long as I was pleasing them, the stars were aligned. The moment I chose to be myself and embrace my own values, I noticed the anger the “shoulds” had against me. Many of them stomped away in disgust, never to speak to me again.

These persistent and powerful messages around us make it very difficult to listen to an inner voice. In some of these situations, I internalized the “shoulds” so deeply that I didn’t have the chance to discover my own independent beliefs. Holsten shares that the “shoulds” lead one to adopt externalized values and never question the commands. By obeying “shoulds,” our belief systems could be co-opted by external forces. She shares a valuable point in that in addition to absorbing the messages, we also start adopting the “should” method of using one-way force to gain compliance with others and ourselves. “Shoulds” are rarely conveyed as a discussion about values or a cooperative process to understand differing perspectives. Instead, we are forced and strongly encouraged in one direction…the “should” way according to others expectations.

Holsten says that the “should” method represents a way of thinking and making decisions in which you are told what to do and be rather than searching for your own authentic needs. By internalizing this method of compliance, a person not only feels the external “shoulds,” but begins placing “shoulds” on themselves as a way to direct their own behavior. We become our own personal tyrant! Holsten states that until we figure out that the problem is in both the messages and the method, we won’t be able to liberate ourselves from the “should” trap and live a more authentic life.

According to Holsten, there are five steps to breaking free from the “shoulds” trap.

  1. Understanding the trap
  2. Choosing to change
  3. Recognizing the “should” in my thoughts and emotions
  4. Releasing the “should”
  5. Looking inward to find my authentic self

Choosing to step away from the “shoulds” and living an authentic life isn’t easy. It takes tremendous courage, dedication, and a desire to embrace one’s self. When I made the decision to pursue an authentic life, I was terrified. Yet, I felt free. Liberated. A weight had been lifted off my shoulders and heart. It took small steps, baby steps. The biggest decision and my first decision, was that anyone in my life who could not accept me as who I am, warts and all, were not worth my precious time. Why surround myself with people who only wanted to tear me down? Gone were the old “shoulds” and in were the new “I love you for you.” Granted, you can’t always do this with family. I have a few “shoulds” in my family. While I don’t cut them from my life, I do stand up to them. I made it clear that I was no longer going to be controlled by their expectations and obligations of me. When a situation happens and the “shoulds” roll the red carpet out, I gently steer them a different way and confidently share that I am me, this is my choice, these are my feelings, and this is what I want to do and how I want to live. Has it been easy? Absolutely not. But my heart is lighter for it.

When you step out of the “should” trap, you don’t have to necessarily change all the things around you. You only have to change how you choose to respond to things. You no longer are the victim, but an engaged actor in control of your life. I’ve felt pressure to advance my career by pursuing a Master’s degree, to involve myself in a job that pays well and has prestige. Over time (and after 3 years in school), I came to the realization that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Pursuing education and a better job was an expectation, a “should.” I “should” be doing something with my degree. I “should” be more advanced in my career. This came from internal and external pressures. As I chose to let this go, my dream became fully realized and “The Cheese & Mouse Artisanal Cheese Shop” was born. I’m now following my dream, my authentic life. The decision to move in an unexpected direction has been difficult, but with an authentic approach I see the whole picture of my decision, and can accomplish fulfilling work without feeling like a disappointment. I will share that once I made this decision, I was pleasantly surprised by the positive responses!

Hoslten does point out that stepping out of the “should” trap doesn’t excuse you from responsibility. It also doesn’t mean that you no longer have to do unpleasant things. In the trap, you do what  you are told, and not what you assess to be right. This means that you could be easily swayed to do things that are not best for you or your community. Instead, it requires that you see the whole picture, the options you have, and you choose for yourself. Living authentically, you own your decisions.

According to Holsten, stepping out of the “should trap and living authentically is not about being selfish, but about self-actualizing. You’ll find that the most compassionate people you know are the ones who live authentically. Serving others feels different. When you now give, it’s out of an honest desire not obligation. Service to others now feels real and uplifting because you own the decision, rather than burdensome because it’s the end product of some “should.”

Holsten warns that not only do you choose to live an authentic life and stop living the “shoulds,” but also stop trapping others. While you are being oppressed by the “shoulds” around you, you also perpetuate the cycle by applying “shoulds” to others. We forcefully place expectations on our family, friends, and our significant others. In stepping out of the trap ourselves, we are also trying not to set it for others. Identifying the “shoulds” is part of a larger shift in how we treat others and ourselves.

I know that I am working hard to remove at least one tyrant from the world.


One thought on “Stepping Out of the "Should" Trap

  1. A wonderful post Kat. It seems to me that ‘should,’ is often tied in to worrying about what other people think of us. I can’t say I’ve made it past that particular barrier fully yet, so reading about your journey into authenticity is inspiring. Wishing you joy.


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