Should I or Shouldn't I?

I’ve been thinking a lot about should recently.

It seems to be a recurring theme of the movement around authenticity, embracing our true selves, and casting off the patterns of the old ways. Calls to let go of the expectations and pressures of our elders and wider society, to listen instead to what our heart and soul is telling us about the right path for us as individuals, and to release the need to conform to ways that don’t serve us.

The irony being of course, that those now telling us that we should not be doing some things, are advising us what we should do instead!

It’s a tricky one for sure, and a paradox that got me thinking: Is should perhaps more of a continuum, a sliding scale between things we should or shouldn’t do because they genuinely keep us safe, things that are optional shoulds because they actually make a certain amount of sense in particular circumstances, and the shoulds we feel the need to rebel against because they hold us back from expressing and living our lives from a place of unique truth?

Now before someone pipes up and tells me I really shouldn’t overthink this – just indulge me briefly, please? Sometimes I feel the need to dig deeper into a seemingly simple issue, one that often goes unconsidered, and this is one of those times. It may end up clarifying my personal feelings about the matter, or it may end up confusing all of us even more, but let’s just go with it for a while…

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know already my instinct to jump to a dictionary to gain more insight into a word, and should is no exception. The definitions I’m most concerned with in the contexts we’re discussing are those that “indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions”, preclude “a desirable or expected state”, or are “used to give or ask advice or suggestions” (Oxford Living Dictionaries).

Should can often appear to be a softer or gentler approach to an order or demand – You should not enter the lion’s den, you should do your homework so that you get good grades, you should eat your vegetables so you grow up healthy – and I think it is this that makes them so insidious and resulting in the long-held stories we end up telling ourselves.

Let’s put aside the genuinely safety-conscious shoulds as generally a good idea – things like looking both ways before crossing the road, not running with scissors, not approaching a wild animal - and instead focus on the ones that we’re told are sensible, but perhaps could be open to interpretation.

One of the biggest should stories I come up against is about the path I should take in life: you should do well in school, and go to university, then you should get a good job which will become a career and should earn you lots of money, and in the meantime you should get married and buy a house and have children and live happily ever after.

Anyone else know this one?

And yes, it sounds great in principle, but what about other options? What about different ways of doing things? What about the people who aren’t academic and struggle at school, or who can’t find a university course in what they want to study, or whose jobs are emotionally fulfilling but not so financially lucrative, or who never meet ‘The One’, or can’t have children for whatever reason, or can’t get on the property ladder because of lack of funds?

It presents a very narrow view of life to me, a really restricting one – but perhaps I can only say that from a position outside of this very defined path, one that I’ve deviated from. Of course there are elements of that kind of life that I’d love, but does there only have to be one way of achieving them?

Another area of should that I’ve been butting up against recently is in the realm of self-employment and business growth. The internet and social media is full of experts claiming to have the answer to what you should do in order to make your first million in six months, or gain ten thousand Instagram followers, or create the perfect business model.

Honestly, some of this stuff is overwhelming. So much conflicting advice, it can be tough to decide what to read and what to ignore. There’s always someone telling you – oh you should definitely read so-and-so’s blog/book, it’ll totally change your life! – and if you generally trust that person, it can be even harder to dismiss their well-meaning guidance.

The thing is, some of the tips and techniques really are useful, and sensible, and can help. But when we’re bombarded with some much information it can feel impossible to separate out the good from the bad. And even harder when you consider that the good for you might be the bad for someone else in different circumstances with a different business or different priorities.

Confused yet? Yeah, me too.

We’ve now reached the next stage in the paradigm of should – the part where there are people telling us to let go of all those old shoulds and focus instead on what feels right for us as individuals. Oh, but you should do this by meditating twice a day, and journaling for an hour, and going for long walks and drinking turmeric lattes...

You see my issue? There’s as much should in this back to basics ‘authentic’ approach as there is in the shouty ‘do it my way!’ advice. The sentiment is different, yes, there is more feeling that doing what works for you is the best way to go, but there are still a multitude of options to choose from.

So what do I think you should do?

Goodness, I don’t think I dare say anything!

I’m still figuring this out for myself, and it’s taking a lot of pondering, experimentation, and soul searching.

Social media is a whole bunch of big, triggering shoulds for me at the moment, and some that I need more time to unravel my feelings about. And there are shoulds in my personal life that have become so ingrained, it is a long process to untangling the parts I want to keep hold of and the bits I’m desperately trying to get free of.

Ultimately? I think you should always come back to this - take what works and leave the rest. If that means a rational, logical, weigh up the pros and cons head-lead approach, then fine. If it looks like trusting your gut instincts, your intuition, and a heart-centred focus, then that’s great too. If you let other people tell you what you should do, make sure they’re things you want to do, although there will sometimes be obligations we really can’t escape. If you and your free spirit feel called to ignore every should and rebel against every expectation, then I wish you joy, although I don’t believe anyone can live completely in a vacuum untouched by the world around us.

Should I expect anyone to read this and follow my wandering words and tangled trains of thought?

Should I even hit publish?

Who knows, but it’s done now, and one thing’s for sure – I should definitely take a break now before my brain explodes!