Over the course of our lives, by virtue of the fact that we are a social species, we form a strong framework of should and should nots. Our should and should nots uniquely reflect the beliefs and preferences of the people around us…The people whom we want to be in confluence with. We want to be right and good. We feel the only way to be right and good is to be and do what we have learned that we should be and do and to not be and do what we have learned we should not be and do. As some would say it, we start to “should” all over ourselves.
For example, to generalize, if you are in the Western cowboy culture, you learn that you should live each day with courage, have the character quality of grit, always finish what you start, do what has to be done no matter how you feel, take pride in your work, in fact always keep your pride and dignity, be tough, keep your promises, die before you quit, get even if you’ve been wronged and protect you and yours. And to the other side, you shouldn’t be unfair, be weak in any way, get emotional, waste your breath because you should talk less and say more, complain no matter how much pain you’re in and be willing to die for your honor.
Or for example, if you are part of a Buddhist community, you learn that you should be calm and self-controlled and master equanimity, speak right (no lies, gossip, harsh speech or insults), be generous, be wise, be compassionate, have kind thoughts, help others, meditate and be aware. And to the other side, you should refrain from excess sensual pleasure, not have ego, never be prideful or selfish, not have destructive thoughts, never harm other living things, never take what is not freely given, never speak unkindly and not care for personal achievement and success other than enlightenment.
Often, we take these should and should nots as laws to live by that are simply a given. We treat them like unquestioned rules to conform to. To the degree that they are often so ingrained, they are subconscious. We think that acting in alignment with our “should” or “should nots” is going to guarantee our success in life. But it isn’t. In fact, you can’t get anywhere with should or shouldn’t. Should or shouldn’t does not matter. And here are some key reasons why:
- When we think something should be a certain way, we often act as if it is that way. To the opposite, when we think something should not be a certain way we often act as if it is not that way. But guess what? It doesn’t matter if something should or should not be a certain way. That does nothing to negate the fact that something is or is not a certain way. Therefore, if we operate from should or shouldn’t, we tend to be in denial about what is. We may refuse to acknowledge or accept what is. And if we won’t acknowledge and accept what is, we will fail to recognize or work with what is real. If we aren’t dealing with what is real, we won’t get anywhere. We are operating from illusion and there, we have no actual power. We will make the wrong decisions and take the wrong actions.
- When we are operating from should or shouldn’t, we are in a resistant state of being. When we have a rule, we resist what does not conform to that rule. Therefore, if we think something should be a certain way or that we should do a certain thing, we are usually in resistance to anything internal or external that isn’t that. And conversely, if we think something shouldn’t be a certain way or that we shouldn’t do a certain thing, we are usually in resistance to anything internal or external that is that. We are walking around in resistance to what is. Pushing against the world and against ourselves.
- Should and shouldn’t thinking often implies a lack of personal truth and a lack of intrinsic motive. The vast majority of the ideas we have about should and shouldn’t come from other people. We adopt them. But they are not “ours” because we have not really questioned them and come to our own truth about them. We just swallow them regardless of whether they reflect our personal truth or not. Also, when we operate from should and shouldn’t, we are not showing concern for what we genuinely want. We are losing touch with what we really want. The should or shouldn’t becomes like an extrinsic motivator. And as a result, we don’t get anywhere. Extrinsic motive is a horrible source of motivation, especially if it is not backed by desires or worse, is working against your desires. You will notice that you fail to do what you think you “should do” because it’s not that you really want to, it’s that you simply think you “should”. Free will and drive becomes shaky in the land of should and should not.
- Should and should not, brings us into the land of inauthenticity. When we are in resistance to what is because we cannot acknowledge what should not be. And when we are in denial about our truth because we have decided that our truth should be something different. And when we are lying to ourselves that we are a certain way because we have decided that is how we should be. And when we are trying to force ourselves to be how we should be and do what we should do, we are not being authentic. Potentially we are trying to convince ourselves that we are something that we aren’t. We are making ourselves do what we don’t want to do. In general, we are either in total denial of ourselves because we cannot acknowledge anything within ourselves that doesn’t fit the picture of how we should be. Or, we see what is, but we are in total resistance to it, and are trying to mold and conform and make ourselves into that picture of how we should be, while avoiding being what we have already decided we should not be.
- Shoulds and should nots are often very rigid and black and white and this gets us into trouble. They are painful, not negotiable and do not accommodate for the nuanced nature of our world. They tend to be inflexible and closed.
- Our should and should nots are often driven by fear. We hold on to them because we are so desperate to avoid something. If we have an idea that something "should" be a certain way, it is often because we are so terrified of it not being that way. And if we think something "should not" be a certain way, it is often because we are so terrified of it being that way. We are also terrified of what will happen if we don’t hold ourselves to a strict standard of how things should be and shouldn’t be. This means, we are using fear and consequence avoidance as the framework of our life. And as such, we are under a lot of pain and pressure in our lives.
- Should and shouldn’t is a recipe for low self-esteem and negatively judging others. Our “rules” about the way we should and should not be often causes us to feel like we are never good enough. That we are somehow defective and cannot measure up to our ingrained picture of right and wrong, good and bad. It also causes us to be rigid with others and negatively judgmental. They will also never feel like they can measure up to our idea of what they should and should not do and be. It is a recipe for pain in the relationship with ourselves and with other people.
- Our attachment to "should" and "shouldn’t" keeps us split instead of integrated. It causes us to deny, suppress and disown anything within ourselves that is not what it “should be” or that conversely is what it “should not be”. This keeps the fragmentation and lack of cohesion in our own consciousness alive and well. This leads to all kinds of pain and problems. To understand more about this, you can watch my video titled: Fragmentation, The Worldwide Disease.
- Should and shouldn’t acts as a barrier to awakening and to awareness, including self-awareness. Our should and should nots are often so rigid, we don’t question them, as a result, we keep ourselves stuck in ignorance and unconsciousness. On top of this, when we will not recognize in ourselves what we have decided should not be there and instead, see in ourselves what should be there, even if it isn’t there, we condemn ourselves to a lack of self-awareness. To understand more about this, you can watch my video titled: Self-Concept, The Enemy of Awakening.
So that you can better understand how you will get nowhere with should or shouldn’t, I’m going to give you two examples. Louise got interested in self-help and spirituality in her early twenties. As a result, she has adopted a lot of should and shouldn’t from the books she has read and the yogis she has studied under and even from realizations that she has had while doing medicine journeys. Recently, Louise went through a traumatic divorce with her husband. Louise has been doing a lot of reading lately. She especially loves Osho. She reads the things he says such as: The more loving you are, the less is the possibility of any relationship. And relationship is a kind of bondage. And relationship is a substitute for your soul. And relationship is needed only because love is not there. And aloneness simply means completeness. Louise decides that a person shouldn’t have the need for another person if they are evolved enough and a person should be spiritually evolved. She also thinks that a person should be whole in and of themselves and therefore shouldn’t grieve the loss of a relationship because that implies a lack of spiritual development. Therefore, she refuses to acknowledge the fact that she is grieving the loss of the relationship. She walks around saying things like “You know, I really feel like this divorce is exactly what I’m ready for. I just sense that I no longer need to use another person to feel a sense of completeness or security.”
Louise’s idea of how she should be and should be does not matter. It doesn’t change what is. And what is, is that she is in shock that her life is suddenly so different than she thought it would be at her age. She feels lonely and feels afraid and is angry and her energy levels are decreasing because she is experiencing depression that she will not acknowledge, all because it should be there. Her refusal to acknowledge what is because it “shouldn’t be that way” and “should be another way” has made it so that her mental and emotional experience is becoming physical. Her sleep cycles are all messed up, she keeps getting infections, she is experiencing fatigue which she never used to have and when she went to the doctor for chest pains, she was diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Louise will not get better physically unless she stops refusing to acknowledge in herself what she thinks should not be there and falling into the illusion that she is how she thinks she should be.
For our second example, Bao grew up in a culture that really, really cares about filial piety. And his parents care about Bao having the right status within society. As a result, they have wanted him to go to the right school and get the right degree and get a job they can be proud of since he was born. Bao takes it as a given that a person should do these things. The problem is, he has no intrinsic motivation to study anything specific in college. He has interests, but none of them fit into the mold of what his parents have always wanted for him. The problem is, it doesn’t matter to Bao what his personal truth is, he knows that he should go to the right school and get the right degree and pick the right job so his parents can be proud. He is living a woefully inauthentic life. And he is also hating his life. Life is something that he forces himself to get through. He has recently started going to a therapist because he doesn’t know why he has these crazy ideas, like stepping in front of the passenger train he takes to campus every day. Bao wants to be happy. But he is getting nowhere because he is living according to what he should do. He is treating what he should do as a given. And his own personal truth and personal desires aren’t even in the picture. So, he can’t make the right decision for himself. Instead, he is making the right decision for his parents and he is subconsciously living according to the belief that a child is born specifically to be in service to their parents.
All this is why you will get nowhere with your personal growth or shadow work or life improvement when you are doing it to get rid of what you think you shouldn’t be or to stop doing what you think you should not do. It’s also why you will get nowhere when you are trying to force yourself to be what you think you should be or to do what you think you should do. When it comes to life, the shoulds and should nots do not matter. And once you realize this and are brave enough to look at what IS instead, you will be that much closer to finding freedom, intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, integration, awareness, authenticity, personal power and the life you really want.