Are You "Shoulding" on Yourself?

Are You “Shoulding” on Yourself?

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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Starting a New Habit

Four Thoughts that Helped Me Start a New, Healthy Habit

This post about starting a new habit is from a previous version of the Thought Tonic blog.  I have decided to update the post and add it to this version.  Although the story is a few years old, the ideas still hold true for me.  Perhaps the thoughts will have some value for you as well!

I have been running outside for the past couple of months — three to four miles, three to four days a week — on a trail that passes close to where I live.  Although I have run before in my life, including as a member of a cross-country team in high school, more than ten years have passed since I ran as much, and as consistently, as I have lately.  Even the last time I ran on a regular basis, I don’t think that I ever ran for more than three miles at once, and I always did so inside, on a treadmill at the gym.  For whatever reason, running outside has always been more of a challenge for me, at least since my days on the cross-country team — over twenty-five years ago.

The other day, when I got home from my run, I kicked off my shoes at the door, and as one of them tumbled into a position with the sole facing up, I noticed that the deep grooves in the tread had caught and held pieces of gravel, bits of twigs, and even some dead, dry moss from all my runs in the recent weeks.  For a moment, as I stared, struck by how much was stuck in the bottom of my shoe, I got lost in my thoughts.  I found myself thinking about what else I could say I had “picked up” in my experiences of developing this new, healthy habit.  What had I learned about the thoughts, or affirmations, that helped me in this process — to the point that I was now thinking about myself as someone who runs outside.

“I can do it (even when I don’t want to do it).”

I cringed a little when I realized one of the first thoughts that had been helpful to me; articulating it explicitly would likely spoil my future ability to use a whole genre of my favorite excuses without a second-thought, without knowing I was lying to myself if I tried.  The thought that had made such a difference was this one:  I can do what I want to do even when I don’t feel like doing it.  There were plenty of days over the past two months, after all, when I would have much preferred to stay in bed, and not get up, dressed, and out the door into sometimes unpleasant weather to exert myself so strenuously.  I did not feel like running on those days, but I ran anyway.  “Yay!” for me, and “Ugh!”  Now that I knew, how could I ever again use, “I don’t feel like it!” as a reason to claim I couldn’t do anything I said I wanted (and really did want) to do?

“I set myself up for success.”

A second learning I had picked up was the value of setting my intentions, and developing these intentions into a plan.  I had thought in terms of starting with running two miles at a time and working myself up to three miles and then to four, beginning with running two days a week and working my way up to three and then to four — all in a given amount of time.  Now, I had a goal of running five miles four days a week by the end of the month, at which point I thought I would likely turn my attention to running faster.  Being clear with myself about my intentions, developing a plan in which my goals were specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound had supported me in doing what I had set out to do.  I had set myself up for success by setting myself a series of what are often called SMART goals.

“I will support myself in this process.”

I was also aware that, in the process of developing my new habit, I had implemented ways to take care of myself, to help myself stay accountable to what I said I was going to do, and to feel supported.  First, I took time to stretch before each run and to do a cool down afterwards; in my cross-country days, over twenty-five years ago, I had been plagued my shin-splints — I wanted to do now what I thought might help me avoid that trouble.  Second, I downloaded a free running app onto my cell phone to help me track my runs, and see what I had accomplished.  Third, I had someone in my life who knew what I was doing, who supported me in doing it, and to whom I sent a quick text after almost every run; this person would reply with a text of “Congratulations!,” “Great job!,” or some other celebratory response that would always put a smile on my face.  For me, this exchange of texts functioned as a source of both accountability and support.

“I choose to think about what I’m doing in ways that fuel my motivation.

The fourth thought that had been helpful to me over the past couple of months concerned the reasons I was giving myself for running.  Rather than thinking in the anxious terms of what I was running from – extra weight around my mid-section, for example — I had made a conscious choice to focus on what I was running toward, and what I felt I got out of running outside.  What I was after, and what I got, was a sense of being in better cardiovascular health; time in beautiful, natural surroundings, on the trail under the trees and with views of the river; and my experience of running as a kind of “moving meditation,” which left me feeling relaxed, centered, and grounded.  Last, but not least, I got a great sense of satisfaction when I could say to myself after running outside, “I did it!”  By thinking in these ways, I was able to generate a very different energy about running outside than I would have had otherwise; with this anabolic energy building me up, I was able to support myself in doing what I said I wanted to do, and in enjoying it.

All together, these four thoughts, or affirmations, helped me start a new, healthy habit.  What thoughts fuel you with positive, anabolic energy — and so calm your anxious thinking, stoke your courage, and foster your confidence — to support you in habits that you find helpful in your life?

Featured Image:  Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

"It's Not Easy Bein' Green"

“It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green”

I have seen a cartoon recently that gives me a chuckle, and prompts reflection, every time I think of it.  In the foreground, the cartoon features a male physician sitting at his desk, looking at an X-ray.  On the other side of the desk, we see the patient whose X-ray the physician has in hand.  Although the physician addresses his patient as “señor Gustavo” (the cartoon is in Spanish), I can hardly imagine a reader in the U.S. who wouldn’t recognize the patient. The patient is one of Jim Henson’s most famous Muppets, Kermit the Frog, who croons the song, “Bein’ Green,” with its well-known line, “It’s not easy bein’ green.”

In the X-ray that the physician is holding, we can see the bones of a human forearm inside the outline of the patient’s body. The wrist is at neck level, and the hand is occupying the head, the thumb beneath the lower jaw and … well, you know how a puppet works.  Loosely translated, the physician is saying to Kermit, who has been known as “la rana Gustavo” — Gustavo the Frog — in Spain, “Have a seat, Mr. Gustavo … what I have to tell you may come as a complete shock.”  There is another version of this cartoon that I’ve seen on Facebook in which the physician’s words to Kermit are rendered, “What I’m about to tell you is gonna change your life forever. Are you really sure you want to know it?

A Puppet to Unhelpful Perspectives

When I think about this cartoon, I find myself reflecting on what Kermit hasn’t seemed to realize on his own, and is about to learn from his physician. In spite of any sense of freedom that Kermit has experienced and thought of himself as having in his life, he has been a puppet. He has not been in nearly as much control of himself as he may have imagined. For me, this idea parallels a realization I’ve often experienced whenever I’ve been feeling stymied or stuck. In these moments — though usually only when my perspective has already begin to shift, unfortunately — I realize that I’ve been subjecting myself to limiting ways of thinking and talking. I realize that, in feeling stymied and stuck, I’ve been a puppet to perspectives that haven’t been working for me, and that I didn’t even notice!

Cutting the Strings

Take, as just one example, the reaction that I had last fall to the arrival of colder temperatures in the area where I live. I had been working since mid-summer to develop a new, healthy habit of running outside. I had been excited about my achievements, and enjoying the process.  When cold weather came sooner than I was expecting, I began to complain. I was reluctant to hit the trail in my t-shirt and shorts, but also resistant to the idea of moving my running inside — to a treadmill at the gym — or investing in warmer running gear.  I found myself oscillating between an emotional state of “Woe is me!” and feeling mad at the weather. I let this experience grind my routine to a sulky halt for almost a week.  In my pouting, I was a puppet to my feelings of disappointment, fear, frustration, and loss.

Finally, I acknowledged to myself that I had actually learned to love running outside over the past few months, that I didn’t want to run in the cold, and that I would really miss running outside when there was snow and ice on the ground. At that point, I decided that, as much sense as my sulking might make under the circumstances, I wanted to have a different experience.  Approaching the situation from the perspective of asking myself, “What’s the opportunity here?” I identified at least a two options of response. As one way of responding, I could learn about and purchase warmer running gear, and tackle the trail in the colder temperatures with this added insulation. Alternatively, or even simultaneously, I could get a head start on moving my running indoors for the winter. After all, I knew that there would likely be days at a stretch when I wouldn’t want to run outside, even with warmer clothes, because of the snow and ice on the ground. I ended up choosing to take my running indoors, and although I was looking forward to warmer weather so that I could be more comfortable outside again, I was still running in the meantime, which is really what I wanted to be doing.

How Do You Cut the Strings?

How do you deal with “bein’ green” — finding yourself a puppet to perspectives that harm or hinder you, rather than help you?  If you took to heart the idea that you can choose to think about things in ways that work for you, and for others, that you don’t have to be a puppet to the less helpful ways, how would this change you — your life — forever?

Updated: 02/13/2019

Featured image credit: alptraum / 123RF Stock Photo