Shoulds (i.e., statements with “should” in them) are tricky because many of the shoulds in our egoic mind contain very good advice, while others are not so useful or even true. It’s helpful to know that you should brush your teeth twice a day and floss, that you should be kind to others, and that you should look both ways before crossing the street. These are useful guidelines. We were taught certain things, and these become rules to live by—shoulds. The problem is that not everything we were taught is true or always true or a good rule for us personally to live by in the moment in which the should arises.
We were taught things like: “You should obey your parents.” “You shouldn’t get angry.” “You should go to church.” “You shouldn’t talk to strangers.” “You should go to college.” “You shouldn’t cry.” “You should always tell the truth.” While these might have been useful instructions when we were growing up, are they useful to you now, in this moment? Shoulds are only a problem if we blindly and rigidly follow them without examining them for how true they are for us in the moment. Now that we have the capacity to do this as adults, we still often act as children in the face of a should, assuming it is always true and the sky will fall down if we don’t adhere to it.
Much of our conditioning is outdated and even untrue. Ultimately, each of us is responsible for our life and happiness, and we need to take responsibility for what we believe and do based on those beliefs. Given this, it’s important to examine our conditioning, including the shoulds. Some of our shoulds don’t actually make us better people but take us away from what might make us happy and fulfilled. For example, my father was a doctor, an ophthalmologist. He didn’t want to be a doctor, though, but he was afraid to disappoint his father and mother. He worked very hard his entire life, but he wasn’t a happy man. He coped by eating and drinking too much, and nearly every evening he would burst into anger. He had a stroke in his fifties, a pacemaker in his sixties, and died of cancer at seventy-four. Sadly, he died with many regrets. Following shoulds can rob us of our health and our soul.
The egoic mind is very quick to tell us what to do and not do—and so are other people’s egoic minds! One of the personas of the egoic mind is the parent or authority figure. If we aren’t conscious of this parental voice, we may find ourselves believing and obeying it without questioning it, just as we, as young children, believed and obeyed our parents.
However, since the buck stops with you, it’s best not to give your power away to your egoic mind or other people’s without first checking in with your heart, where the truth lies about how to move through life for you. It is your life to live, not anyone else’s. Living someone else’s life, as my father did, is very hard to do—very stressful and not very happy.
Can anyone else know what’s right for you as reliably as you can? Inside, you have the most dependable compass for knowing how to move in the world, more dependable than other people or your own conditioning (egoic mind). The guidance system we’ve each been given tells us what’s true now for us, not at some other point in time or for some other person. It’s specially designed for us. So if a should is in alignment with what your heart says, then you should do it! If a should is not in alignment with your heart, then you shouldn’t.
This guidance system doesn’t speak to us in shoulds but through more subtle signals and intuitions, which register in our body, especially in the area around the heart, before a knowing arises as an “aha” in our mind. This intuitive process happens in a split second, and if we’re wrapped up in our thoughts, we might miss it. The communications from our heart, when received, feel good, even euphoric. How gracious of Life to point the way with good feelings. The unpleasant feelings and depression that we experience when we believe the egoic mind’s lies and half-truths are how Life shows us which directions not to go in. How benevolent of Life.
The funny thing is that when we’re tuned in to the deeper guidance system of the heart, we don’t need even the seemingly useful shoulds that our egoic mind produces because we will naturally act appropriately and safely. We are all wise at our core. We have already integrated all the conditioning we need to keep us safe—it’s already in our bones. We don’t really need the voice in our head to remind us of it: Do you still need your egoic mind to tell you to look both ways before crossing a street or to not touch a hot stove? When we’re fully present in the moment, we are tuned in to this guidance system and naturally respond to it. Life unfolds simply and easily, uncomplicated by the confusion, fears, and guilt of the egoic mind.
I understand that moving out of our egoic mind (our intellect will still function as always) and trusting this inner guidance may sound airy-fairy to some, because that’s how the egoic mind does see what I just suggested. And yet, everyone knows what it feels like to be tuned into the heart and in the flow of life. Once you shift your trust from the egoic mind to the heart, you begin to live more from that place of Stillness, out of which all of life comes. This is a place of wisdom, a place you can trust.
An antidote to the contraction and stress caused by certain shoulds that show up in our minds is to turn them into coulds: “I should go to the wedding” becomes “I could go to the wedding.” This little trick allows more possibilities to be included. Shoulds narrow our choices down to one (which isn’t exactly a choice), and this choice may not be the right one for you, even if other people think it is. Coulds open up our options: “I could go to the wedding or I could stay home and learn a new piece on the piano or I could have a day by myself to sit by the lake or….” When we allow ourselves to include more possibilities, it becomes easier to recognize what our heart really wants to do. Which option feels like a big yes? You may discover that you really do want to go to the wedding. It’s much nicer to go to a wedding knowing that you want to be there than out of a sense of obligation.
Another problem with shoulds is that they can take the fun out of life. Even when we really like doing something, if we feel we should do it, that should creates resistance within us, just as the shoulds that came from our parents did. When we are in resistance, it becomes difficult to know what we want to do, what our heart wants. Shoulds weren’t a particularly effective way to motivate us as children, and they aren’t now either. Mostly, following shoulds takes the juice out of life.
Not following our shoulds doesn’t mean we’ll behave badly. Our natural self knows how to behave. We can trust our heart to lead us to activities that are wholesome and fulfilling. It’s guilt, shame, and other negative emotions that lead to unwholesome things, such as addictions. Guilt and shame don’t protect us from ourselves but uphold the false self. If we aren’t attending to the egoic mind, we won’t get lost in negative feelings, we won’t behave badly, and more importantly, we won’t lose our way. Find out how to live now by turning your shoulds into coulds and opening up to all the options your heart comes up with.
From Gina’s forthcoming book From Stress to Stillness: Tools for Inner Peace in a Not So Peaceful World, which will be released in November.