Wednesday, April 21, 2021

5. Lose The Should To Feel Good

If everyone removed their "shoulds" then my career would be over tomorrow.  People could immediately experience relief from guilt, shame, low self esteem, body dysmorphia, loneliness, superfluous disputes, impulsive rage, conflict on social media, and emotional suffering.  So please, whatever you do, don’t share this Lesson with anyone you know.  I love my job.  
Yes that is sarcasm.  If there happened to be a radical shift in thinking and connecting, and people stopped using “should” against themselves and others, and a subsequent revolution of love, compassion, and connection happened to follow, then I wouldn't complain.  I would happily drive trucks or deliver pizza in such a utopian world.  I would still find a way do my “Work."

I don’t think this is likely to happen in my lifetime, however.  In fifty years I have consistently seen people identify with their depression, defend their anxiety, retell unhealthy narratives, polish the glass ceiling on the limitations they place on their joy.  When someone asks for my help changing this, the first step I recommend is changing their “should” in order to feel good.

“Shoulds” are rigid and inflexible beliefs that cause great pain suffering when they conflict with immediate reality.  Examples include, “I should lose weight,"  “I should make more money,” “My penis should get erect anytime I tell it to,” or “He should vote the same way I do,” "She shouldn't leave me," or “They should wear a fucking mask.”  Shoulds are insidious, meaning they are often subtle, gradual, and usually not recognized until they have become problem.  If you they don't conflict with reality, then there's no stress, no problem.  If I say, "A pizza should appear when I order one," and then it does, then there's no strain. But if you're investing in a rigid and inflexible idea that is NOT being reflected in reality,  then you are likely to feel guilt, shame, lack of control of your anger, contempt for your body, have arguments with people who aren’t there, repetitive fights with people who are there, regret your life decisions, and then some. 

“So What’s the big deal about the word should?  Isn’t it just a common word people use every day to express themselves?” 
Yes, it is used every day.  But that doesn’t make it healthy or productive, especially not in a country where suicide rates have increased by 30% in the past twenty years, drug overdoses have tripled in the same time frame and most Americans felt lonely before  COVID19 hit.  Clearly “normal” does not translate into “joyful.”  Living life and getting older doesn’t have to be this difficult.

I go about joy in an entirely different way.  I believe we were born into this world already carrying an abundant sense of love.  We often can see in babies and small children an infinite capacity to give and receive limitless joy.  They just want to be held, fed, changed, touched.  They don’t lie around thinking, “How much weight am I going to gain if I drink that bottle tonight?”

Unfortunately, most people get the message in early childhood, “You are not okay the way you are.  Connection is not unconditional. You should be different in order to be loved.”  I would argue that queer kids resoundingly internalize this message earlier than our straight peers. We equate changing ourselves with worthiness, connection, and success before we even have full grasp of language.    

Earlier in my life I suffered greatly from shoulds.  I was the recipient of critical and incessant shoulds from another person from the first day I was born.  Society told me I should be less emotional, smarter, better at sports (or at least make some attempt to play them), get better grades, be interested in boy things things like Star Wars, eat better, dress better, date girls   All of these shoulds had a cumulative effect which added up to one bigger "should" at age eleven: I should be dead.   

I was walking home from school on Overland Ave in Culver City, a segment of the road where cars sometimes speed pretty fast.  On one occasion I stepped off the curb onto the street.  In that moment I was thinking, “Okay, this is it.  I shouldn’t be here.  I can end this.  I will be doing everyone a favor.”

But instead another voice stepped in and said, “DON’T DO THIS.  If you have the control to end it, you have the control to fight it. Turn around and fight those motherfuckers.”  Okay!  I turned around.  I went home.  I went back to school.  I faced the bullies inside and out.  I survived.  

I continued to struggle with anxiety, insomnia, and general adolescent irritability after that, but I never felt that depressed ever again.  Once I felt better I understood that I had a range.  My own experience had taught me there could be emotional highs, there could be emotional lows.  If I brave out the low points, then there would be a plethora of feelings to follow. Things will feel better, things will feel worse, I don’t have to make life-ending decisions based on low emotions.  Having access to this insight helped me to finish fifth grade.  

I can’t say I was exactly healthy after that, but I wasn’t consumed with suicidal fantasies either.  I focused my energies more on watching tv shows and movies that offered escape by fictionalizing people surviving emotional pain and trauma (hence, my love for soaps), as well as making friends with other kids who felt like the outsiders.   I started to invest in believing in my future as an adult where I could feel confident, smart, relevant, meaningful.  In short, I practiced faith.

That intention got me to college in Santa Cruz where I had a bit of meltdown my first quarter.  Through an incredible therapist I came to understand that I had survived a major depression episode as a child partly by numbing out from it.  I hadn’t really dealt with the pain I had felt, I had just successfully side stepped it.  Once I was living on my own the pain I had been pushing down flooded me.  My therapist helped me to see I had stronger and healthier coping skills as an eighteen-year-old than I had had as an eleven-year-old.  I could handle this.  
I was telling a friend about this outside the Porter Dining Hall on May 19, 1990, when I heard myself say, “It turns out my only real problem from childhood is that I thought I should be different.  Whenever I think there’s something wrong with me and I should be different I feel sad and anxious.  When I realize I’m fine the way I am, I feel happy and hopeful.  So all I really have to do is stop with the shoulds.”  My friend supported me in this revelation, and together we made a sign I wore about my neck for a week to symbolize “no shoulds.”  I explained to everyone who asked (and I’m sure many who didn’t) that I was committing to giving up shoulds for a week for my mental health.  If it worked I would keep it going once the week is over.  Well all these years later I’m still doing it, and that first handmade sign became the cover of my 2008 book, “Absolutely Should-less.”
I consider the messages I received on Overland Avenue, as well as outside the Porter Dining Hall as “signs” that have guided me when I’ve had turbulence and trouble.  Whether I call them “God” or “Angels” or  “gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” doesn’t really matter.  When I was younger these messages were random and sporadic.  In my twenties I learned how to hear them when I would drive long distances in my car.  In my thirties I learned how to access them through regular meditation and prayer.  These helpers are around me like ion particles, it’s just a matter of whether I tune them in and pay attention or not. 

Turning fifty without “shoulds” helps me to get older without regrets, guilt, or shame. I am far from perfect, I am far from learned.  But because I actively challenge and change my thinking I am more content, at ease, and connected with myself and others than I’ve ever been.  The efforts toward cultivating joy allow me to experience the spectrum of human feelings from happiness to sadness to frustration to irritation to elation, all without “shoulds”, attachment, or fear.  I think we all deserve to experience this level of peace in our lives.  Just don't tell too many people, I still have a mortgage to pay off.  😆
Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707.

No comments:

Post a Comment