Often, when we encounter a feeling, there is a “should” attached to it. You’re upset because you just broke your wrist, but you tell yourself you should be grateful you don’t have a worse injury or illness. You start crying at work thinking about a deceased loved one and tell yourself you shouldn’t be crying in a professional setting. You are hurt and frustrated when a friend bails on you again, but you tell yourself you shouldn’t be so bothered by it. There are myriad examples of how we “should all over ourselves” when it comes to our emotions. Instead of recognizing, accepting, or embracing the way we do feel, we try to push ourselves out of that emotion into another one—usually a more socially acceptable emotion. Telling yourself that you “shouldn’t” feel your emotion or the natural and normal expression of that emotion rarely works.
Why shoulds don’t work
As my mom used to tell me when I was little (and, wisely, into my adult years) “emotions just are.” This is why trying to control our emotions through shoulds or shouldn’ts rarely works. We have little control over what we feel; emotions occur because of something we observe, something that happens to us, or something we feel physically. Of course, we can control (to some degree) our emotional expression—such as whether you yell when you’re angry or cry when you’re sad. But the actual emotion, felt internally, just happens in response to some stimulus—its existence is beyond our control. Wanting or trying to make emotions go away doesn’t usually change the emotion. That emotion still exists—we might just be ignoring it or trying to cover it up.
When I was training to become a marriage and family therapist, I remember crying about something in front of my supervisor and a small group of my peers. Feeling embarrassed, I verbalized that I shouldn’t be crying; I felt like what I was upset about didn’t merit tears and that I shouldn’t be upset in the first place. My ever-wise supervisor then shared a metaphor that I have never forgotten. She calmly spoke about how in her yoga classes, she often feels frustrated when she’s in an uncomfortable pose. She wonders why the yoga instructor is making them hold the pose for so long, she feels frustrated with her body for not being stronger or more flexible, she cannot wait until she is no longer in that pose, she wishes they were doing an easier pose, and she may even wonder why she came to yoga class. In essence, she is fighting the current state she is in rather than accepting it. However, my supervisor realized that when she accepts being in the pose rather than fighting it, her body relaxes, and the pose becomes so much easier. She realized that most of the difficulty of holding the pose came from trying to fight it.
The wise and experienced therapist she is, my supervisor likened her yoga experience to what I was doing—and what we all often do. When we feel an emotion—be it an unpleasant one, an unexpected one, or a socially unacceptable or embarrassing one—we often fight it. Like my supervisor with her yoga pose, we try to rush out of the emotion, blame others or ourselves for the onset of the emotion, tell ourselves we should be feeling another emotion, or suppress the emotion completely. This cues the shoulds. I shouldn’t still be upset about this, I shouldn’t have listened to her, I shouldn’t have done that, I should be happy about this, I shouldn’t be feeling this way.
But as my supervisor learned from yoga, fighting the emotion we’re experiencing rather than accepting it is often cause for much of the pain and discomfort we experience with uncomfortable emotions. Often, the emotion in and of itself isn’t so terrible when we let it be. It is the judgments we place on it—all the shoulds—that make it feel unbearable.
Instead of shoulding
Accepting an emotion is certainly easier said than done. The “shoulds” often creep in almost unnoticed, as they may be second nature to us. So when you notice yourself judging your emotions, thinking that you “should” or “shouldn’t” be feeling some way, or blaming yourself or others for this emotion, what can you do to stop the nearly automatic thought process?
First, try to name the emotion you’re feeling: “I feel really sad right now.” If your mind is accustomed to being blocked in by “shoulds” as soon as an uncomfortable emotion pops up, simply naming whatever you’re feeling can be extremely validating. Recognizing and validating your emotion doesn’t mean you have to express it outwardly, but simply saying to yourself, “I’m angry,” can help you feel seen (even if only by yourself).
Next, you can be curious about the emotion. Instead of jumping to “shoulds” (or even if you’ve already jumped), stop and name the emotion, then ask yourself why you might feel this way. Wonder at why this is an uncomfortable emotion that you are desperate to get past or that you judge yourself for feeling. Be curious about why you feel this emotion and any “shoulds” you place on it.
Finally, notice how you feel (physically, mentally, and emotionally) while placing “shoulds,” judgement, or blame on the emotion versus how you feel when you just let the emotion exist. Chances are, you’ll notice that you feel physically tighter and tenser when “shoulding” yourself, while you feel lighter or looser when accepting an emotion (even if the emotion is an uncomfortable one). You may also find that when you let the emotion be, it’s not as bad, embarrassing, unacceptable, or uncomfortable as you thought it would be.
A freeing word
Sometimes when we feel an uncomfortable emotion, “shoulds” get in the way when we think there is only one way, a right way, to feel about something. For example, say you’re the star of your soccer team, then you tear your ACL and can’t play for the rest of the season, and potentially the whole year. Trying to stay positive, you keep telling others and yourself that you shouldn’t be upset because it could be much worse, and you’re lucky you don’t have a career-ending injury or some illness like cancer. While of course this is a wonderful perspective to have in the midst of such a setback, you also may be unknowingly denying yourself the experience of the grief that this injury caused. Using the word “and” in these situations can be freeing; it opens you up to the truth that you are thankful you don’t have a much worse injury, and you’re still upset that this injury has ended your season. Using the word “and” allows us to accept that two things which we thought were “either/or” can actually simultaneously be true.
For example, a person who lost her grandfather might say, “I shouldn’t still be sad, it happened so long ago,” or, “I shouldn’t be this upset, at least it wasn’t one of my parents.” Adding an “and” opens her up to the truth that “I lost my grandpa so long ago, and I’m still mourning his death,” or, “I am blessed that I still have both my parents, and I am still so upset about my grandfather’s passing.” “And” allows both statements to be true and allows the individual to accept and validate her feelings.
Many of our implicit “shoulds” come from what we’ve internalized from society as acceptable or unacceptable emotional responses. But usually the judgments and barriers we place on our emotions only end up hurting us more. Learning to let go of shoulds when it comes to your emotions will allow you to feel more joy and more connected to your real human experience.