When you feel guilty about being stuck or procrastinating, it is time to free yourself from the “shoulds.” I coached numerous clients who felt ashamed, calling themselves “lazy,” when it came to pursuing their goals. I was able to help because I knew how they felt.
For several summers my daughters attended a summer camp in the same building complex where I used to work. When I walked through the halls, I was bombarded by reminders of my past life. The memories were not pleasant. I remembered feeling fear and guilt.
I had a great job, running multimillion-dollar federal research projects. At a prestigious university, I worked with two of the most brilliant minds in my field. My parents were proud, but I was unhappy.
A career in academia had always been the goal. My parents told me it was “the” place to be. It took me seven years of doctoral work and three additional years of research. When I finally got there, I didn’t feel a sense of achievement, I felt dread, and out of place. Everyone else, including the graduate students working for me, seemed smarter. I had to really work at stuff that others seemed to do with ease. Every day I feared someone would catch me impersonating a research scientist.
It took me a really long time, a ton of emotional work, and tremendous support from my spouse, therapist, and coach to finally do what I want instead of what I should. I had to battle the voices in my head: “You should be doing research and working toward a tenure-track job.” “You should stay in the Academy; leaving means you failed.” “You should be writing journal articles, not writing in your journal.”
Having coached many women, I found that when you free yourself from the shoulds, it helps you to not only achieve your goals but enjoy your accomplishments, too.
How many times have you…
- Worried about what you should be doing at a time you could be relaxing or enjoying yourself?
- Caught yourself feeling guilty about sneaking in a TV show or a few more pages of a good book, or lingering a little longer in bed in the morning, because you should have been doing something for your boss or your family?
- Felt horrible after buying yourself a little something when you should have been saving money/looking for a new job?
- Lay awake listing the things you should do the next day instead of sleeping?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying we must ignore responsibilities and blissfully only do what we want. The necessities are “needs” not “shoulds.” For example, I couldn’t just quit and leave my university job; I had financial responsibilities (and health insurance!). But, long after I left the job, the “shoulds” continued to resonate in my head, keeping me unhappy and holding me back for at least two more years.
It was only when I quieted the “shoulds” that I was truly free to pursue the “wants” and enjoy the process.
What to try
“Shoulds” never really go away; new ones prop up all the time. The key is to notice them. Then, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this should really a want?
- Is this should really a need?
If you answer yes to either of the above, then ask yourself: What is really stopping me from doing this? What am I really afraid of? Is there a smaller step I can take instead?
If your answer is no, ask yourself: What is the origin of this demand? Who is compelling me to do this? How can I let go of this? Can someone help me with this?
I find that when my clients and I go through this process, we are rewarded with a sense of relief, boosts of energy or feelings of joy.
Are you ready to free yourself from the shoulds?
If you liked this article, check out other good questions to ask yourself.
An older version of this article was first published in July 2010.