A Seemingly Innocent Word

“You can awaken each day to obligations you never chose – or you can decide now to choose them.” ~ Robert Brault

Do you hold yourself back from doing the things you want to do because you may disappoint others?  Maybe you want to leave your job, start your own business, go back to school, live more simply or move to another country.

Many of us subconsciously make decisions based on a common, potentially damaging word: SHOULD.

I bet we’d all like to believe we don’t live our lives to please other people – at least not to the extent it’s to our detriment – but it’s hard to go through life without internalizing the (perceived) expectations of others and then building upon them ourselves.

In a workbook I completed by Barbara Braham, Ph.D. titled “Finding Your Purpose: A Guide to Personal Fulfillment,” Braham states, “People rarely recognize the enormous power that shoulds have to control their behavior and self-perception.”

Braham suggests that people become limited – and their spirit squashed – when they seek outside approval, and their own ideas about what they should have, do or be are in conflict with the ideas of the people around them.  She gives examples: have (a good job, a nice car), do (act your age, check emails frequently) or be (perfect, smart, successful).

I found this interesting.  I used to be a big people-pleaser and it took years to get to the point where I could comfortably set boundaries and say “no” to people.  So I thought I was pretty good in the “should” department.


Braham’s book led me to explore my own “should statements” to see if any were holding me back, and replace those with positive value statements that I consciously choose.

It turns out I did have some limiting shoulds.  They were subconscious, so I was pretty surprised when I realized the expectations I was still imposing on myself:

“I should always put others first.”  Wow.  I can feel the oppressive weight of that one as I write it.

I have since replaced it with a much more empowering statement I created: “I take care of myself as top priority, knowing that when my needs are met I’ll be able to consider the needs and well-being of others.”  (Kind of like the flight attendants’ instructions for a change in cabin pressure: put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others).

“I should be a responsible daughter, sister, wife and mother.”  I’ve now replaced this one with the gentler statement of, “I want to be the best, most authentic me I can be, without putting needless pressure on myself.”

Braham states, “When you let should guide your life… you are giving others the power to decide whether you think you are okay or not.  Then, no matter what you decide, you suffer feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and unhappiness because someone thought you should do something else.”

A huge weight was lifted when I went through the exercise and realized I could let go of old negative thought patterns.

When you have a few minutes of downtime, give some thought to the word should.  Are your own shoulds serving you?  And if not, what empowering statements can you replace them with so you’re living according to your own values rather than others’ expectations?

And forget about appearances and how you “should” look and act!  Dance in the rain.  Jump in puddles.  Jump on the bed.  Act ridiculous and giggle helplessly.  It’s your life, enjoy it!

About Christine

Positive thinker. Writer. Personal empowerment coach. Lover of travel and adventure, oceans and mountains, and the energy of a big city.Oh, and deep belly laughs, sappy movies and spirited conversations. Believer in limitless human potential.
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6 Responses to A Seemingly Innocent Word

  1. i ditto what you say… have been doing this all my life… glad to read you today. bests.

  2. Yes, it’s so easy to get caught up in “shoulds.” And if we don’t look at them closely from time to time, we may not even realize that we internalize all sorts of expectations that are, in many cases, anything but empowering. But once we’ve shed light on them, we can make conscious choices about whether or not we need to change them. Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Nice meaningful post 🙂

  4. louise says:

    An interesting concept. I will examine this. It’s true I’m sure that we all over look the invisible obligations of this “should” attitude that restrain us. And perceptions-of self and of what we think others perceive of us…also restraining. Time to let them go or at least recognize, aknowledge and then loosen them at least!

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