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Don't Let Others Define You, Your Life, or Your Future

Do you feel guilty for not doing what others say you "should" be doing in life?

What should you be doing that you aren’t?

Most of us are raised with an internal “code of ethics” or “emotional barometer” that reminds us that we live up to our promises and complete our tasks on time. We all seem to live on a very tight schedule, so when we are spending time doing what we’d “rather,” guilt creeps in and reminds us that we’re not doing what we “should.” Sometimes the “shoulds” are things that other people are telling us we should be doing, or even things that we just imagine that other people are thinking. We can create a lot of inner turmoil all by ourselves, without even realizing that only we know what we, ourselves, “should” be doing.

Let Go of Nagging Self-Doubts

When we spin our wheels or go in circles wondering about what we “should” be doing, we are clearly not making any progress moving forward in our lives.

When it comes down to it, no one is inside your head, but you. No one is living your life, but you. There’s no reason to give away ownership of your decisions to what “anonymous others” think you should be doing with your life

You Really Don’t Have to “Do It All” and “Do It Well”

Many of us think we have to do it all. It’s really our culture, today, to make us think that we’re not doing everything we should be doing, from 24/7 news cycles to email to text to social media such as constantly rolling Twitter feeds and Facebook and Instagram “life boasting” feeds.

One big problem is FOMO or Fear of Missing Out. When we see the awesomely fulfilling or exciting or heartwarming activities of others everywhere we look, it’s easy to feel that our own lives are somehow lacking; although we actually may be staying super busy and accomplishing a lot of the normal, routine things that actually bring us satisfaction and joy.

What is most important in quelling the “shoulds” that play in your own head is taking a little bit of time to reflect on what is truly important to you, personally, in your life. Make a list of all the things that you feel have personal and intrinsic value to you. Maybe it’s a clean home, maybe it’s a hot meal on the table every night, maybe it’s annual vacations to amusement parks with the kids, maybe it’s keeping up with your favorite TV show, maybe it’s a weekly night out with your friends or a date night with your significant other. Once you make a list of what you truly value, then you’ve created the only list of “should” that should ever really matter.

Tips for Giving Up Shoulds

  1. First, remind yourself that there’s no reason to carry burdens that aren’t yours to carry. Free yourself from guilt because no one does everything they should, doing what we can is sometimes all we can do.
  2. Remind yourself: You are the boss of yourself. It’s up to you to do what is necessary to feel successful and satisfied with what you accomplish. When my three kids were teenagers, I remember how tickled I was when my younger son yelled at his older brother, “You can’t make me! You’re not the boss of me.” That classic comeback was surprisingly true: We are all the “boss of ourselves” and we have the right to determine what it is that we really “should” be investing our time and energy into doing.
  3. Figure out what is most important to you in life and then focus on working towards these goals. When a “should” starts playing through your head, or when someone else, no matter how well-meaning, tells you what they think you “should” be doing, remind yourself that no one but you is “the boss of you.”
  4. Change those “shoulds” into “coulds.” Think of them as possibilities, not obligations. Then, when a “should” creeps up, remind yourself that while you “could be doing that other thing,” you’re choosing to do the things that are on your own “priority to-do list.”

Some examples:

Maybe I “should have been a lawyer,” but going to law school just wasn’t a priority.

Maybe I “should keep my house cleaner,” but spending time with my kids is my priority.

Maybe I “should make my own holiday gifts, but my priority is making time to do the things that I value most and holidays are about spending time with people I love.”

How Do We Defuse the Shoulds that Play Through Our Heads?

Remember, you do not have to seek approval from absolutely everyone who knows you for your life choices; when we constantly try to please other people and do what they think we should do, we are taking away our own power to do what we know is right for us.

Have confidence in yourself and give yourself time to reflect on what you value—lifestyle, goals, accomplishments, experiences. The things that make you happy, that allow you to live the life you want, and to have your world filled with the people (family, friends, etc.) and things you value are the things that you want on your priority list. Life is short and there are so many choices out there and so many examples of how people might live, don’t let trying to live someone else’s life get in the way of living the life that brings you satisfaction and contentment.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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