The Curse of the Shoulds

As I'm writing this, we have just come out of another Mother's Day and I am thinking ahead to the next few holidays and what my family will be doing. Holidays, and family get-togethers in general, can really cause a lot of anxiety in me and in many of the folks I talk to (in and out of the therapy room). There is just so much pressure - so many shoulds, have tos, musts, and can'ts. When it comes to these rules, as I call them, who is in charge?

This struggle is not unique to family get-togethers - in fact, these kinds of rules have a way of showing up in every aspect of our lives.

The rules can be so common that it's hard to notice when they are there - often, the rule shows up, and we obey. No thought. It's just second-nature. These rules are also really helpful in a lot of ways. Without rules, I don't think I would be very good at making my to-do list or actually accomplishing anything on the list. Without these rules, I don't think I would be very good at doing things that are important but unpleasant (I'm looking at a large pile of laundry as I write this, for example).

But what happens when these rules take over and aren't helpful anymore? What else could be possible if we weren't governed by these rules so intensely?

I'll give you a few examples that have come up in the conversations I have been having lately.

What would you gain by allowing yourself to say "no"?

For many anxious and perfectionistic folks, this is a very familiar struggle. Women, especially, are really trained to say "yes" - we are expected to help, to support, and to put other people before us. But can you think of a time when saying "yes" might have benefit someone else while actually harming yourself? For folks with unhealthy family patterns, saying "no" to family can be incredibly difficult and also incredibly healthy.

When it comes to protecting our own mental health and the mental health of our children, for example, it might be important to say "no" when saying "yes" would put us in harm's way.

Not all families are healthy, and when that dysfunction begins to cause harm, a "no" can be very freeing. Sometimes the "no" is forever. But sometimes this "no" can be more like a "not right now." Boundaries are great because they are flexible and they can be changed at any time.

What would you gain by allowing yourself to say "yes"?

I often think about the college-age folks that I work with when it comes to this one. Sometimes they will have fabulous opportunities come their way, but saying "yes" might have other costs (e.g., changing their major and taking a minute longer to graduate, taking a leave from school for a semester to pursue something exciting and meaningful, facing the imposter syndrome and allowing themselves to be seen).

A "no" can feel much more safe because we know what to expect with the norm.

But a "yes" can open doors to new, exciting, and life-changing opportunities.Even if it doesn't go well or as imagined, a change can lead us to things that we never thought possible. Sometimes saying "yes" to one opportunity takes us to a path that we didn't even know existed before.

What would change if you allowed yourself to notice the rules that show up in your life and intentionally break those rules?

I often talk with folks about this process being like an experiment. We can feel a lot of pressure to make/adopt rules and to be 100% consistent with those rules, to the point where it's the rules that are living our lives and not us living our lives. Our minds are so rule-governed that there are innumerable rules available throughout our day that we can "play with" without risking horrible outcomes.

Allowing ourselves to purposefully break some of these less serious rules opens our mind up to the possibility of holding these rules a little more flexibly and gives us permission to break other rules when the situation allows.

Maybe when your mind says you have to look a certain way before you leave the house, you allow yourself to try something different - a different piece of clothing than normal, a different style with your hair or makeup, purposefully wearing clashing items of clothing, etc. Maybe when your mind reminds you that you should  eat that healthier lunch, you give yourself permission to eat something different. Maybe your brain tells you that you have to drive a certain path to or from work every day (with all kinds of reasons why this is the right choice), but you purposefully choose another route?

These might seem like silly ideas, especially if you give your mind the time to convince you. But the process of breaking rules is not about outcome.

It's about the process of feeling what it is like to take back control of our lives again.

If you can survive breaking silly rules, what bigger rules would be possible to break? If you take back control of your life, who might you be and where might you go?

Breaking rules, even if we really want to, is incredibly difficult. Our brains don't like it and they will protest. It will be uncomfortable and possibly even painful. Having support before, during, and after this practice can be invaluable.

If you think having some support as you allow yourself to explore taking back control of your life and maybe breaking some rules, reach out and let's see if you and I are a good fit.

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