Letting Go of Shoulds

October 22, 2015

letting go of shoulds

By: Natalie Love, LPC, and LMFT-Associate
Supervised by Sabrina Kindell, LPC-S, LMFT-S

My very first therapist taught me about “shoulds.” She once said to me, “Wow Natalie, you certainly “should” on yourself a lot.” Of course, this made me laugh, but it also was the first time I noticed how often I was saying & thinking, “I should do ______, I should feel_________, I should want to _________, or I shouldn’t feel _________.”

This is something I like to bring to my client’s attention as well. We are full of shoulds and desires and needs. I notice this often when there are things we feel obligated to do, like clean the house, go to the gym, do homework, finish a book, return a call a friend or family member, cook dinner etc. We have so much stress & tension in our lives today I’ve started considering where these “shoulds” come from.  When a client says “I should ____” I often ask, according to whom? Is this something you are putting on yourself? Does this come from culture, religion, parents/family tradition or values? I think we often don’t even consider the source or motivation behind it & I want to bring awareness to this.

Should is what others want for us—how we are supposed to think, what we ought to say, what we should or shouldn’t do. Shoulds are usually based on spoken or unspoken expectations of others. These expectations may be from the values of our parents, the culture we grew up in, the religion we belong to, or the community around us.

Our true desire comes from who we are, what we believe, and what our personal needs are. It comes from our true, authentic self, not from outside influences. When we stop to ask ourselves what it is that we actually want it can sometimes be difficult to decipher when are so accustom to listening to what we feel we should do.

So how can you begin to attune to the wants & desires that align with your true self and begin letting go of shoulds?

  • Notice when you are “shoulding” on yourself. Acknowledge when you notice thinking or saying “I should _____.” You can even scan your body to see if you notice any tension or tightness or if you are holding your breath. These may be clues as well.
  • Let it be okay that you are “shoulding.” Try relaxing your body & allow yourself to feel the fullness of your anger or irritation with yourself for not meeting your own expectations. Allow yourself to turn toward the fear that you may “miss out” or disappoint. Try not to move out of the feeling too quickly by coming up with solutions or moving into thoughts. It may take some time to become more comfortable with this process, be patient with yourself.
  • Write down some of the needs that the “shoulds” may be trying to motivate you to meet. For instance: Should- “You should really call mom back today.” The needs that may motivate you to call: Connection with family, ongoing communication, feeling more at ease by checking in to see everything is okay. The needs that may allow you to let go of the should: Space, freedom, understanding, self-reflection
  • Choose an action that would meet one of the needs you have written down.
  • If you are having trouble deciding which to do first, go through the list and number them according to how immediate the need is versus your interest in doing them. You can also pay attention to how you feel in your body as you scan the list.

Letting go of Shoulds

If you pick one of the things you don’t particularly enjoy doing, like putting the dishes away (which may meet your need for a clean kitchen), you can try challenging yourself to make it fun or follow it with something enjoyable or rewarding. For instance, once I finish putting the dishes away I will sit down to watch my favorite show.

I try to check in with myself when I hear myself saying “should” & try replacing it with “want” or “don’t want.” This can help decipher what the need is, if it is coming from within or an outside influence, & how strongly you feel about meeting the need in that moment.


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