Do You “Should” On Yourself?

by Kassandra Lamb

We didn’t get to one of my favorite places this year on our summer sojourn to Maryland. There’s a street of shops in Annapolis that I love to poke around in. Several of them have some pretty unique stuff.

One shop is devoted mostly to handmade pottery jars with cork stoppers and all kinds of interesting things written on the labels. Years ago, I bought a couple of those jars. Here’s one of them:


I used to use it in my therapy sessions, when clients were “shoulding” on themselves, i.e. telling me all the reasons they should do something that wasn’t in their best interest, because that’s what they had been taught to do.

Now before I go on, let me put this caveat out there. I’m not advocating that we should all engage in purely self-serving behavior and ignore the morals we were raised to abide by. We have to have moral codes in order to live in families and communities.

The problem comes in during the teaching of those moral codes to young children. Kids by nature are all-or-nothing thinkers. So the rules about what we “should” or “ought” to do tend to be absorbed as absolute truths rather than guidelines for behavior.

Then as adults we often feel we should do something a certain way even though it may not be the best approach in the current circumstances.

As adults, we have more of these.

As adults, we have more of these.

A friend of mine once got into a major financial bind herself because she kept bailing out her grown son when said son got in over his head with credit card bills and such.

I finally couldn’t stand by and stay silent any longer so I gently confronted my friend. “Why are you doing this? You’re draining your own savings, and all you’re doing is enabling your son to continue to be irresponsible with money.”

She huffed and rationalized for a few minutes and then said, “Parents should be selfless where their kids are concerned. They should always put their kids’ needs before their own.”

I suggested that she stop and examine that belief. It was one she had learned as a child and teen modeling her own mother, who put up with a bad marriage until all the kids were grown in order to keep food on the table because “at least he’s a good provider.” (I heard that phrase a lot from unhappily married women of my mother’s generation.)

Finally she got it that she wasn’t really helping her son by bailing him out. It was time for some tough love.

Then I went downstairs to my office (it was in my house at the time) and got my shoulds and oughts jar. I had her write down that “should” on a slip of paper, as I often had clients do. Laughing, she put the slip in the jar and smacked the cork firmly back into the top.

And the son… After he had his car repossessed, he got it that he needed to straighten out his thinking about finances. My friend paid for him to go to a financial counselor for several sessions to learn how to handle his money. Now he’s a responsible young man who is raising a couple of kids of his own.

As adults, we need to bring those all-or-nothing rules out into the light of day and ask ourselves if we truly “should” keep following them in such an absolute way. Now we have the ability to weigh the circumstances and the various options available. Often we can find an option that allows us to do the right thing but without harming ourselves in the process.

A funny addendum… One time, a colleague and good friend (who had a warped sense of humor) visited me in my office. As a joke, he grabbed my shoulds and oughts jar off the bookshelf, opened it and dumped all the little slips of paper out on the desk in front of me. I literally jumped back as if they were snakes. 🙂

How about you? Do you have some shoulds and oughts that sometimes trip you up as an adult?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series and has started a new cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy series (coming soon).

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    August 25, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    So glad things turned out well for the son (and the mom!). Self-assessment of our thinking behind what we do and why we feel a certain way is always valuable. Love your insights, Kass!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      August 25, 2015 at 1:36 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Kathy. There are so many ways our thoughts can derail us sometimes. But an internal check and readjustment of our thinking can often make a big difference.

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    August 25, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    My main “should”: You should be writing. I feel shamed when people post their daily word counts and they are so much more spectacular than my measly 500-word goal, which I often don’t reach. Fortunately, I can usually shake off the anxiety this “should” produces by thinking of all my blessings and asking myself what is really important in the world.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      August 25, 2015 at 1:38 pm

      Oh, yes, Vinnie, the writer’s constant challenge–finding a balance between writing and the rest of life! For me it’s all the other chores related to writing that I feel I “should” get done before I can indulge in writing new words. And having said that, I’m gonna go write now! 😀

  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    August 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    It took me a long time (actually it took me until I crashed my nervous system) to let go of all my “should and oughts”. and stop beating myself up. How self-destruction our own minds can be. Self-reflection is such an important skill and should be taught in school.

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    August 25, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Boy, wouldn’t that be wonderful, Shannon, if we taught psychological skills right along with reading and writing? As I said above, we need a moral code to live by, but when we’re beating ourselves up because of the things we think we “should” do, that’s not helpful.

  • Reply
    Amy Kennedy
    August 25, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    I keep thinking I’ve got this one…and then I realize I’m having a “should” party! I should check my work email (from home), I should go in on my day off–they need me, I should do this other ridiculous thing…always.

    I give way too many “shoulds” to my work. Yikes! Need to step back on this!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      August 25, 2015 at 11:11 pm

      Yes, Amy, those sound like “shoulds” that need a long, hard second look. I like that: a “should” party. Gotta remember that one.

  • Reply
    Kristy K. James
    August 26, 2015 at 4:37 am

    My list of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ is as long as my arm. I need to help this person, that person, and wish I had more so I could do something for someone else, so I really ought to spend every waking minute writing, editing, and figuring out new stories to write because I don’t have nearly enough to do everything I should for everyone I want to help.

    The worst thing is, I don’t think I’ll ever get past that because helping other people is such a huge part of me … not to mention I can’t stand to see people in need – especially when it isn’t their fault. 🙁

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    August 26, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    You have a good heart, Kristy! There’s a big difference between a “should” and a “want to.” If helping people is who you are, then perhaps these are more things you want to do. I know that when my son and his family needs help, I will do everything within my power to help them. Because I want to, not because I should. But if I can’t help, I don’t feel guilty. I just hurt for them.

    It sounds like you need to give yourself permission to be human. You can’t help everyone who needs it. You can feel bad for someone and regret that you can’t help without having to beat up on yourself because you don’t have the resources right then to help them. {{Hugs}}

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    August 31, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    Oh goodness, if we’ve lived long enough, I’m sure we all have our own shoulds and oughts. I’ve got plenty of them. And I don’t think that will stop until I’m six feet under Kassandra. lol. I think it’s all part of the package of our imperfect lives. I’ve given up beating myself up over them. It’s just gonna happen regardless of how careful we are. Cute jar by the way! 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      August 31, 2015 at 7:01 pm

      Thanks, Karen! That’s the key, to not beat ourselves up when we don’t quite live up to all the shoulds and oughts.

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