Escaping the Trap of “Shoulds” and Doing What You Want to Do

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” ~Maya Angelou

I’ve never done things the “normal” way. Yes, I graduated from high school and went on to college, but then I didn’t go the job-marriage-house-baby route.

After I had my degree in hand, I moved to Vermont to work at a ski lodge. After a few months of that I packed up all of my belongings and traveled around the country, landing in Montana. I spent a few months there, sleeping on a mattress laid on the bare floor in an apartment with no other furniture.

I could walk to the grocery store and the library; the two-screen movie theater was also just a couple of blocks away. National parks and glacial lakes were nearby. It was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived.

I left Montana and traveled around for a while with a boyfriend, then landed in Virginia Beach. I got a job I loathed and quickly experienced a feeling that would become familiar over the years: that of being trapped.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but this wasn’t it, yet I felt I had no choice. I often felt directionless and downright miserable.

Soon, though, my time in Virginia was through, and I headed back to Vermont. I worked a variety of jobs in the hospitality industry, finding that I actually enjoyed meeting the guests’ needs.

Then, somewhat suddenly, another move was on the horizon, this one down south to the mountains of North Carolina. I found a job at an inn and stayed there for three years. I enjoyed the job, but the money wasn’t great, and after some time I was starting to feel lost and, again, trapped.

I left that job for a “good” one. It was a state job, with benefits and decent pay. I hated it and cried almost every weekend, filled with dread whenever I thought about going back Monday morning.

During this time I started talking to a life coach who I hoped would give me some guidance and hope, and within a few months, I got the courage to leave that awful job. I also got the courage to change course with my career and start my own business, which felt like a good direction for me.

And then, again, I floundered. Although I loved what I was doing, I wasn’t really making my business work. Looking back now, I know why.

After less than a year I was majorly money-crunched, so I went back to a regular job. But, as usual, I was bored and felt trapped. I knew there was something more for me, I just didn’t know what.

Finally after a few more years and a series of events that included a serious illness, the death of my father, and a pregnancy, I took matters into my own hands.

Even though I still had a full time job, I started making art again. I started doing all of the things I was passionate about. And I went into business for myself again, this time with greater clarity about what I wanted to do, why, and how could I do it.

It didn’t happen overnight, but with time and hard work, my business started to grow.

I left the world of cubicles, office politics, and boring meetings forever once my daughter was born, and now I spend my days doing work I love and hanging out with my baby and husband. It feels great, it feels right, and it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.

Looking back over my experiences I realize there is one word I’ve carefully left out when describing my journey, and it’s one that showed up whenever I felt held back or trapped. That word is “should.”

Sometimes “should” showed up alone, other times it was accompanied by its close personal friend, “not.” Either way, whenever should was around, my life suffered.

“I should get a full time job with benefits after college, that’s the right thing to do.”

“I should not move to a new state without having a job lined up.”

“I should try to please other people first.”

“I should not pursue a career that is so out there. What will other people think?”

Here are more examples of how “should” can really mess up your pursuit of all things authentic and true, if you let them:

“I should stay at this job, even though I hate it.”

“I should stay in this marriage, you know, for the kids.”

“I shouldn’t pursue that thing that lights me up inside because people will think it’s silly.”

“I shouldn’t move because my parents will be upset.”

“I should say yes to that obligation even though it makes me cringe.”

“I shouldn’t charge too much for my services because then people think I’m full of myself.”

“I should say yes to another serving of cake so no one thinks I’m rude.”

Do you see how one little word can interfere with your life in such a big way?

I am so, so thankful that I never let a “should” interfere with my life for too long. I’m so thankful that my inner compass kept yelling “something’s not right here!” and that I actually listened. I’m so thankful that I was brave enough to move past the excuses when it mattered most.

If you’re in the same boat, and know there’s something more for you but can’t take the leap because of “should” (or “shouldn’t”), here are some ideas:

1. Notice when you are falling back on a “should” excuse.

A good place to start is to notice when you feel sad, fearful, or guilty. Notice what “should” is lingering in the back of your mind, causing that emotion.

2. Change your thoughts.

Once you’re more aware of when you’re telling yourself you should or shouldn’t do something, it’s time to change that thought.

Try something that’s easy for you to believe. Instead of “I should always say yes to new projects at work, it’s best for my career,” try “Maybe it’s okay that I turned down that assignment, since I’m trying to learn about what’s best for me and that one didn’t feel quite right.”

3. Ignore the “shoulds.”

You actually don’t have to believe every single thought that comes into your head, especially ones that make you miserable and drive you further from doing what makes your heart sing.

Next time you hear yourself saying you “should” do something, try saying, “I hear you, but I don’t believe you, so I’m going to think about something else now.”

4. Figure out who you’re trying to impress or make happy.

You are most likely trying to stay within the bounds that your family, your church, your community, or society in general has deemed acceptable. Pinpointing who it is that you’re trying to satisfy can help you break free from the game of “shoulds.”

5. Beware of imposing your own personal set of “shoulds” on others.

The people who take you most seriously, who are most concerned with pleasing you, are going to be your loved ones. Now that you’re aware of other peoples’ “should” on you, think about how your expectations may be impacting others.

I still struggle with telling myself I should or shouldn’t do certain things, but I’ve made great progress. I really believe that everyone will feel more content, confident, and in touch with their true selves if they can learn to do things because they want to, not because they should.

About Jen Picicci

Jen Picicci is an artist and writer living in the mountains of Western North Carolina. She creates colorful and uplifting abstract artwork, which is available on her website. She also teaches classes on painting, intuition, and mindfulness. To see her work, follow her on social media, or download her free Intro to Mindful and Intuitive Painting Guide, visit www.JenPicicci.com

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