Many of us may be familiar with the idea of “shoulding” on ourselves as telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing. When we “should” on ourselves in this way, we often end up feeling guilty, but this sense of guilt doesn’t necessarily help us; frequently, in fact, it creates even more of a problem. We begin to feel bad about ourselves (i.e., our guilt morphs into shame); rather than feeling more motivated, then, we feel more hopeless. Today, I’m introducing what I think of as a variation of this problematic “should-y” thinking. In this variation, we get in our own way of reaching goals not because we tell ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing, but because we tell ourselves that we have an obligation to do exactly what we’re doing — even when what we’re doing isn’t working.

“All Roads Lead to Rome”

A week or so ago, I went running one morning after we had had stormy weather the evening before. On my run, I encountered a couple of downed trees across the trail I usually take. The first tree didn’t give me much trouble — I could just high step over the trunk in order to pass. The second tree was significantly larger, and posed more of an obstacle. I ended up having to duck under the trunk and then sidling through an opening in the branches to continue along my way.

On my return trip — I had run up the trail a couple of miles, and then doubled-back — I found a work crew on the scene of the larger fallen tree. The two crew members were starting the process of sawing the tree into smaller pieces for removal. One worker was standing in the opening that I had passed through previously, lopping off branches with a power-saw. As I approached, the other worker spotted me and caught her companion’s attention. The worker with the saw looked up, noticed me, turned off the saw, and stepped to the side to let me pass. As I ducked under the trunk and slid past, he said something that he might have been instructed to declare to anyone in my position, or maybe he was trying to be funny: “You’re proceeding at your own risk!” Because I wasn’t sure how to take this statement, I tried to be humorous in my own response. I shrugged my shoulders, and replied in a tone of comically over-dramatic resignation, “I came this way — there’s no other way for me to get back!” In hindsight, I’m not sure that my response was very funny, but my intent must have clear enough, or was funny in itself, because the other worker laughed; of course, she might have been laughing at the other worker!

As I continued my run, I found myself reflecting on the reply I had given the worker with the saw. I started by wondering why, in that moment, I thought I had to be funny, and even if I had been funny, but I ended up focusing on how inaccurate my statement had been: “I came this way — there’s no other way for me to get back!” Had I not been able to return the way that I had come up the trail, I surely could have found an alternate route to get back. I would have had to backtrack my steps a bit, but there were other places to get on and off the trail through neighborhoods that connected to streets I could follow back home. The way would have been much less straightforward, and I would have experienced it — at least initially — as frustratingly more inconvenient, but I would have ended up at my house all the same. I did not have to go back the way I came.

An idiom I’d heard before came to mind: “All roads lead to Rome.” I understand this idiom as referencing the days of the Roman Empire when so many roads radiated from the capital city that it didn’t really matter which one a person took to get there — any road would do! Nowadays, we tend to use this phrase to mean that many routes can lead to the same result. This idea is one that marriage and family therapists (like me) often learn when we’re studying systems theory: equifinality.

Feeling Stuck? Think “Equifinality”!

In my work as a therapist, counselor, coach, and supervisor, I frequently hear people talk about feeling stymied when the plans they have made don’t pan out. Because they have had in their heads that they have to take a certain route to get where they want to go, they sometimes feel stumped and discouraged when things don’t go as planned, or as things “should,” and the path they expected to take is blocked. When they encounter obstacles that they just can’t seem to get past, they can end up feeling stuck, unable to move forward.

I’ve had this experience myself — when writing, for example. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve worked myself into a state of frustrated paralysis because I’ve been struggling with the introduction or initial paragraph of a paper or a blog post until I stop to think, “Who says that I need to write the introduction or the initial paragraph first?” Once I have prompted myself to remember what my goal really is — to write a paper or blog post, and not to write a paper or blog post in a particular order (since the order in which I write the piece is ultimately inconsequential!) — I have been able to get myself unstuck and moving forward again.

In these kinds of situations, the block that I experience is a product of my own limited thinking about how I “should” do whatever I’m doing, how things are “supposed” to happen. I fall into the trap of thinking that there is a certain way, even just one way, to meet my goal. Many of us may be familiar with the idea of “shoulding” on ourselves as telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing. We could identify what I’ve described as a variation of this thinking. In this variation, we don’t get in our own way of reaching our goals because we’re telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do something different than what we’re doing; instead, we get in or own way because we’re telling ourselves that we have an obligation to do exactly what we’re doing — even when what we’re doing isn’t working. If the way that we’re trying to do something isn’t working, let’s try another way! There’s more than one road to Rome!

Are You “Shoulding” on Yourself?

What are the ways in which you find yourself stuck by this kind of “shoulding” on yourself? What helps you get yourself unstuck, and moving forward again?


Featured image: Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

An earlier rendition of this post appeared in a previous version of The Thought Tonic Blog.

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Written by Scott Kahler

Scott is a licensed therapist, certified life coach, and credentialed supervisor at Thought Tonic, LLC, in Indianapolis, Indiana.  He has a niche helping adult clients struggling with anxiety, and often their self-esteem, to feel less controlled by worry, fear, and self-criticism so that they can live their lives with calm, courage, and confidence.

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