There is a great deal of pressure on women today when it comes to our careers. From seeking to find elusive work/life balance, to struggling to be seen and heard in today’s workplace, to fighting to break the glass ceiling in our fields, these pressures can make navigating your professional life extremely challenging. With so many career-related expectations, it’s no wonder that women experiencing more work-related stress than men, according to the Harvard Business Review.
While there are many pressures that women in the workplace face that are external (that is, coming from sources other than ourselves, like workplace culture or society), the battle to succeed professionally often happens on a very personal level. In other words, the pressures to be perfect, to balance it all, and to be the best are often internal pressures that many of us struggle with on a daily basis.
In my psychotherapy practice, many women tell me they often feel at war with themselves, asking:
“Am I good enough?”
“Should I have spoken up at that meeting?”
“Will I ever get promoted?”
“Will I ever find my dream job?”
In my office, I have heard all of these fears. And, after speaking with my own friends and colleagues, I suspect it isn’t just my clients who struggle with these career-related stresses. We all wrestle with these kinds of fears at some point in our lives. We may feel afraid to share these concerns, but staying silent only leaves us feeling trapped and alone in our struggles. This, in turn, only serves to further entrench us in our attempts to conform to these pressures to be “perfect” professionally.
The good news is there is a way to protect ourselves. One way to fight back against these fears and pressures is to eliminate the word “should” from our professional vocabulary.
The problem with "should"
While we can mean well using the word “should,” it can actually be harmful. If you think about it, the word “should” conveys that some kind of disparity exists. There is something that you are not doing and that you feel you are supposed to do. Perhaps there’s that one high-school classmate who seems to always be sharing her career successes on your social-media newsfeed; looking at her accomplishments, you may feel like you haven’t done enough. Cue feelings of inadequacy, impostor syndrome, and self-doubt. “Look at what she has accomplished since high school. I should be much further in my career. I feel so behind compared to her,” you may think to yourself.
The trouble is, you and your high school classmate (or whoever this person is in your life) are two very different people with different goals, different personal lives, and different skill sets. Comparing your career trajectory to hers isn’t a fair comparison but we all conveniently forget these very important differences when we fall into the comparison trap. But when you make an effort to eliminate “should” from your vocabulary, it not only helps you sidestep the comparison trap but it also helps you remove any unnecessary pressure you are placing on yourself.
Similarly, in some workplaces, women can feel an implicit pressure to be more assertive and to embrace qualities that are characteristically more masculine in order to demonstrate leadership and potential in the workplace. A friend recently shared a story about a coworker she admires, who told her that, as a project manager, she used to put pressure on herself to be assertive because she thought that it was what she should do. She thought it would demonstrate that she was a leader on her team. However, it was hard for her to feel genuine when she was trying to be more assertive.
For this coworker, her “aha” moment came when she realized that the skill set she already possessed was what made her an excellent project manager: she was a good listener, she was organized, and she knew how to motivate and encourage her team. Once she realized that she was the perfect fit for the job as she was—no “I should be more…” statements required—she restored her sense of confidence and was promoted. Not only did she end up enjoying the work she did, she was able to free herself from the pressure of conforming to someone else’s expectation for what makes someone a successful leader at work. By focusing on what was best for her, she felt more confident and empowered both personally and professionally.
When you free yourself from the comparison trap by eliminating the word “should” from your professional vocabulary, you empower yourself to focus on your personal professional goals and what you are uniquely good at, instead of following someone else’s career path and dreams. Of course, someone else’s professional life can serve as inspiration and motivation, but it’s a problem if the model becomes inauthentic or limiting. Letting go of “shoulds” frees you to be authentically you. Try it and see!