Recently, while at dinner with a group of girlfriends, a friend said, “I don’t really care that I’ve never had a boyfriend, but I feel like I should have because I’m 25.” This comment sparked a conversation among the girls around the table about how societal norms and imposed “time lines” often lead women to think they “should” have their first kiss, have a boyfriend, or get married by a certain age.
It’s not just the timeline of romance that elicits such “shoulds,” though. Many women feel society’s implicit pressure regarding their careers—what they should be doing and when they should be doing it. Likewise, many women feel the “shoulds” as they apply to motherhood—“I should be home more,” “I should take part in more of my children’s activities,” “I should be having fewer children,” “I should be having more children.” It seems like no matter what we do or don’t do, there is a silent but not-so-subtle “should” suggesting we do it a certain way or in a certain (often limited) amount of time.
And, of course, the “shoulds” don’t stop there. We know all too well there are implicit and explicit standards and expectations that come with what we should look like as women—what we should wear, what we should eat, how our physique should look, how and how often we should be working out. Between our romantic lives, our careers, our family life, and our appearance and lifestyle, there seems to be a “should” for everything in a woman’s life. Figuring out how to cast off the pressure of all these “shoulds” and live from within, then, is no easy feat—but certainly worth the effort.
What “shoulds” look like
As a woman with a master’s degree, I often feel like I should be working outside the home, rather than working from home as a writer while being a full-time mom. Despite enjoying the time with my daughter and the flexibility my current situation provides me, I often feel that I should be striking the balance of working and being a mom differently. Sure, part of the should comes from pragmatic concerns, including a potentially higher household income for my family.
But, if I’m brutally honest with myself, the weight of that “should be working more” comes from seeing other moms in their careers. Seeing a friend or acquaintance succeed in her career often makes me wonder if I should be out there working, too. Is there something I’m missing by staying home? Would that be better for my family? And—deep under it all—am I not a “real” modern woman because I opt not to work full-time? Who am I if I don’t have a career title or paycheck to prove my worth? It’s true that women have made so much progress in the workplace that now I have the opportunity to work and excel outside the home, if I so choose. But just because I can doesn’t mean I have to—or necessarily should.
As in my friend’s experience, societal messaging that a woman should have a boyfriend, have a first kiss, or be married by a certain age can be another instance of this phenomenon. A woman may not be interested in dating or marriage, or she might hope or even plan to be married at some point, but at this point in life she doesn’t have the time to date, or simply has not found a suitable partner or spouse. Like my friend, she might be perfectly content being single, or she might be accepting her situation with more reluctance. In both cases, though, the implicit pressure of society whispering that she should be in a relationship puts unnecessary stress on her, and makes it more difficult to enjoy being single and/or to try to date.
Again, the “should” in this case ostensibly has a pragmatic reason for women who wish to have children; a woman’s fertility typically declines with age (to call out the elephant in the room). History plays a part in setting these timelines, too (e.g., when women have historically wed). But, just like the pressures of mothering and working, much of the pressure comes from social norms that aren’t necessarily rooted in anything substantial—comparing ourselves to what other women our age are doing now. As a woman sees her friends begin to couple, then sees them get engaged, get married, and have children, she can struggle with a case of the “shoulds.”
Like my feelings of insecurity about not being in the workforce, a woman may begin to question her values, her worth, and her decisions underneath the weight of this “should”: “Am I being too picky?” “What’s wrong with me that I’m still single?” “Was I right to choose this career?” But the truth is, although there will always be an average age that Americans get married, that ultimately means nothing for a woman’s individual story and experience. Some women meet their future spouse in grade school, others not until they are 50. As we all know deep down, this status has nothing to do with a person’s innate worthiness—but sometimes that’s difficult to remember under the pressure of the “should.”
Where “shoulds” come from
In addition to “shoulds” creeping up due to social pressure or awareness of what others are doing, they may come from our own personal experiences. They may be internalized voices of what a parent, relative, or authority figure has said or done in the past. A stay-at-home mom whose father emphasized how important it is to work, or who came from a family in which she was praised predominantly for what she did rather than who she was, may have internalized a voice that tells her she should work to prove her worth. A working mom whose own mother was a wonderful stay-at-home mom might question her own decision to work, thinking she should be home with her kids like her mom was.
Worse, these “shoulds” can come from actual, explicit voices of parents, relatives, peers, or authority figures currently questioning or telling a woman what to do. A grandma who asks, “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” every time you see her. Other moms who question your decision to stay at home or go to work. Co-workers who remind you that you should get married soon or you won’t be able to have biological children. As inappropriate as these voices are, unfortunately they do exist for some women.
How to avoid the “shoulds”
It’s important to realize that feeling like you should live a certain way is different from wanting to live that way. Wanting to have a boyfriend because you have always wanted to get married and have a family someday, or because you value companionship is different than feeling like you should have a boyfriend because you are a certain age. Saying “should” implies you’ve internalized a societal norm or want to do something because others are doing it. Of course you might desire something that also happens to be in line with societal norms. But wanting to do something while also feeling like you should can add stress, pressure, or unhappiness. So, the key to avoiding “shoulds” is being able to distinguish your own personal values or desires from ones you have internalized from society.
01. Find your why
Doing so, of course, is much easier said than done—particularly when you want something that is also a societal norm. For example, if you want to have a boyfriend at age 25, this is also a societal norm, so it can be difficult to distinguish if this is from your own values or from a societal should. When you think about the thing you want, first consider your reasoning: why do I want to have a boyfriend right now? Am I lonely? Would I like to have someone to do activities with? Do I desire romance? Or, do I feel that a woman of this age should have a boyfriend by now? If most of my friends have boyfriends or are married, is that influencing my desire to have a boyfriend?
Or take the example of wanting to lose weight; we can ask similar questions: why do I want to lose weight? Where did I get the idea that I need to or should lose weight—from a doctor, from a magazine, or from images I see? Do I want to lose weight to fit a societal mold, or is it for my health, or some of both? Do I want to lose weight via a diet I read I should try, or am I trying to make sustainable choices about what I put in my body? Am I trying to lose weight because I don’t like my body and believe it should look different? Or, do I want to lose weight while loving my body as it is now and respecting all it does for me?
These answers may not be as obvious as we think, so taking a little intentional quiet time to think about it can be beneficial. Maybe sit down with a journal if you’re an external processor, and write down your “why.” Chances are, you may discover you feel both personal reasons and social pressures that influence your desire.
02. Reflect on your values
Next, write down or think about some of your personal values that are relevant to the topic. For the topic of wanting a boyfriend, values may include important qualities you seek in a partner, the value you place on marriage, what place you believe sex has in a relationship, if you want children, religious beliefs that pertain to partnering, and so on.
In the case of wanting to lose weight, consider your values around physical and mental health. Values around this topic heavily relate to what your relationship with your body is like—maybe what your family’s emphasis (or lack thereof) on body image was like growing up. Think about, too, what the media you consume says about dieting, exercising, and body image, as well as your values around body positivity. Consider or jot down how your values (this question) and your reasoning (first question) align or don’t align.
03. Tune in to your body and emotions
Finally, consider how your body physically feels and any emotions that come up around this topic. Do I feel a sense of stress and pressure, manifested as anxiety or tightness in my chest? This might represent a “should” I have internalized that is weighing on me, rather than living from my own values within. Do I feel calm and confident, without the physical signs of anxiety or stress (chest tightness, tight jaw, jitteriness, etc.)? If so, this may be a sign that I am living from within—that what I desire is aligned with my own values rather than what society thinks I should do.
To give an example, in my internal battle of balancing motherhood and career (which many mothers struggle with), I recognized that much of the pull I feel to work outside the home actually comes from internalized notions of what it should mean to be a modern, millennial woman—but not what I necessarily value. I have felt the weight of the un-asked question about whether I am “wasting” my education by caring for my children. I see what women are capable of in the workplace—and how those rights have been fought for over decades—and feel pressure that I should be there, too. I see female peers succeeding in their careers and feel the weight of the lie that I need something tangible—a job title, a paycheck, an award—to prove my worth. But when I follow the process outlined above, I can recognize that these all come from internalized societal “shoulds.” I’m also able to tune into my own values and remember why I intentionally chose the path I’m on—to prioritize my family life and invest emotionally in my children while they are so young and impressionable. Of course, this might not be the right choice for another family or mom, but for my family and our values, I can tune out the noise of the “shoulds” and know it is the right choice for me.
Clearly, “shoulds” sneak into both our language and our thoughts. Without realizing it, we may be wishing for something that doesn’t even align with our values or true desires, but our culture has insidiously told us that this is something we should have. Other times, societal norms and shoulds add unnecessary pressure, stress, timelines, and frustration to already deeply rooted desires. Being able to separate the “shoulds” from our own true value-based desires allows us to live a more peaceful, content, and personally-rooted life from within.