How to Live a Great Life by Letting Go of “Should”

2014 has been a rocky and simultaneously amazing year for me. I said goodbye to several beloved family members, discovered my calling and purpose in life, ended a 6-year relationship with the person I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, and created incredible breakthroughs in my finances, my relationship to my family and, most importantly, my relationship to myself.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the past year, and what I want to accomplish in 2015. I’ve realized that the biggest, most brilliant and intense lesson that I’m taking with me from this turbulent and magnificent year is that I have the power to create what I want. I have the power to choose and declare what I want, how I want to feel, how I want to be treated, what I want to spend my time doing and what obstacles I want to tackle. I realized that the BIGGEST obstacle is  getting rid of the “shoulds” and “have tos” that are so pervasive in every aspect of culture these days.

I’ve always been fascinated with cultural psychology– basically anything that takes a look at why we do the things we do.  Specifically, looking at what influences our choices and what ideas fuel our lives. What I’ve found through years of informal reflection and formal academic study that I’m finally able to put into words as a result of my experiences this year is:  Stories are POWERFUL.

From Disney movies, to our favorite songs and plays and video games, to the narratives we construct to make sense of and ascribe meaning to our own lives– stories have a huge influence on how we look at the world, what we perceive and what we do with the information we take in.

For years, I believed the story that there was some way that I should be living my life–that all I had to do to ensure a successful life was to get good grades, graduate from high school, go to college, and find a job when I graduated. And while there’s nothing inherently evil or disempowering about that story on the surface, I’ve found that ANY path or plan born from obligation, or involving the words “should” “must” or “have to” is going to end in stress, resignation and despair.

“Shoulds” and “have tos” take our power away from us, because they rely on the idea that things must go perfectly according to plan for us to be happy. Now, I don’t know about your life, but in mine, things rarely go according to plan.  And what happens when you study hard, get good grades in college and then don’t get a job in your field, or can’t find a job at all? Or you’re working three jobs just to make rent and pay your bills but are miserable and have no time to enjoy life?You blame yourself for not being up to par, for not being good enough, for not working hard enough.

This is what “shoulds” do–they set up and reinforce a belief that you, in and of yourself, aren’t good enough, or capable enough to be where you want to be in life.

Any choice made from “should” is a choice based in fear. Fear of missing out, fear of failure, fear of getting things wrong, or looking bad, or messing up.  Plans that are made in the realm of “should” always refer back to an idea of lack or deficiency– and give yourself something to use to beat up on yourself about. “I should be further along in my career” “I should be married by now” “I should have more clients and a bigger business” “I should be making more money” translates to “Things aren’t going according to plan, so I must be doing something wrong.” And life feels so painfully difficult.

But it makes TOTAL SENSE, right? When the stories that make up our childhood fantasies are all about how a Hero must take a journey full of loss, pain, uncertainty and heartache in order to reach his destination. A Warrior must be forged in fire and lose the ego, and sacrifice everything in order to win the war.

And we EAT IT UP, because it’s so juicy, it’s so delicious, it keeps us on the edge of our seats and makes us feel like the 40 dollars we spent at the movie theatre, and the 12 hours we spent binge-watching Sherlock on Netflix was worth it.

But the thing about REAL life is that it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s just that living life from “shoulds” takes away our agency and the feeling that we have a say in how our life goes, which of course makes us feel helpless and powerless.

Why do you think one of the biggest songs of the year is about letting go of your fears and saying goodbye to standards of perfection? (Incidentally, here’s my favorite version of this song. NSFW unless your boss approves of the use of the F word…)

So what if we rewrote our story from a list of “shoulds” to something different. What if instead of seeing an obstacle as a bad thing– a thing that stops us or gets in our way– is actually an opportunity to check back in with ourselves and see what we want to choose, how we want to feel, and who we want to be. Period. End of sentence.

What if we believed that the obstacles weren’t the things that actually keep us from getting what we want? What if we believed, instead, that the only thing keeping us from getting what we want is the belief that we’re doing things wrong or that things aren’t going the way they “should?”

I’m reminded of a quote from my favorite author, Cheryl Strayed, who walked every step of an 1,100 mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail with no company, and little preparation to help her find herself after losing her mother to cancer, and losing herself to her grief. Knowing the dangers and terrors that a lone female hiker could face on such an isolating and arduous journey, Strayed recalls a pact she made with herself before starting her journey in the midst of a terrifying run in with a rattlesnake.

“It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

If Cheryl had been listening to voices that told her that a woman shouldn’t travel alone, or that she should turn back or that she should give up, she probably wouldn’t have made it 10 steps into the trek.

This quote reminds me that we have a choice in every circumstance: in the face of setback, and failure, and disappointment we can choose to listen to the voice of “should” and let any misstep derail, and let our judgement of where we aren’t or where we should be  decide our future for us.

Or…we can let go of the “shoulds” and start believing the best about ourselves. We can relate to ourselves as whole, complete, powerful, loving, loved and capable of overcoming any obstacle that’s in our way.

2014 was the year that I finally rewrote my own story and finally threw out the “shoulds,” reclaimed my power and my belief that I can overcome any obstacle that’s in my path.

And it started with a choice.

The choice between making myself live a life riddled with “shoulds” or choosing to cut myself a break and asking myself what I want out of life, then going and figuring out how to make it happen.

You don’t have to know how you’re going to do it, or what it looks like.

All you have to do is keep asking yourself how you want the story of your life to go, and make choices from that place.

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