It was more than 12 years ago in a graduate school counseling class that I first heard this line. Apparently, Albert Ellis‘s school of counseling was making t-shirts that said, “Don’t should on yourself.” I giggled childishly at the play on words. I recently learned that Ellis originally called it, “musterbation,” but I was worried about finding a good image for that. But since then I have come back to this as a key piece of wisdom in my life.
Recently, I’ve even been thinking about it even more often.
Those should’s represent external expectations. When I hear someone else say you should or hear myself think that I should do whatever, it has become a red flag for me to stop and consider whether this is something that I want/value or it is something that others have placed on me. At times those external expectations fit our core values and we internalize them.
Other times those external expectations are so strong that we internalize them even though they don’t fit with our core values. Freeing ourselves from others expectations and living for our own internal purposes is a key to growth and development (self-authorship) as well as happiness.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how high achieving individuals are should on in a particular way.
First, we should reflect on why some of us are tracked in this way and others are not as there is significant evidence about the intersections of race, class, and other privilege being replicated in this way. When other people have high expectations for you it is affirming.
However, some of those expectations lead us to internalize expectations that don’t fit what we want and we start living our lives for someone else. There’s nothing wrong with this path, unless it is not your path.
Here are some of the should’s that I’ve experienced. “Keith, you should…
- go to summer school. join the gifted program.
- take the advanced math class.
- go to a good college.
- apply for the honors program.
- double major.
- go to grad school.
- take on professional leadership positions.
- get a PhD.
- be a Director.
- be a Dean.
- be a Vice President.
These expectations have all been very affirming and it is wonderful to have people who believe in you. Most of these things I have pursued and many of them have been wonderful and changed my life for the better. But not all of them fit, and not living up to other’s expectations has at times left me feeling like a failure.
For example, I signed up for the honors calculus class when I went to college because someone suggested it based on my standardized test scores. I found myself in way over my head and felt like a failure when I got a B-, which I assure you was a gift. I didn’t want to double major and felt like I let people down when I wanted to focus on coaching basketball and being an RA rather than taking on additional courses.
Now I find that others have selected a career path for me that I had internalized but no longer is central to, and may conflict with, how I want to live my professional and personal life. I am finding myself in conversations lately with other high achievers who feel that if they don’t get a PhD, then somehow they have failed. What a set-up. I loved my doctoral program experience. It was absolutely right for me. But that doesn’t mean if it isn’t right for your intellectual curiosity, professional goals, or personal/family focus that you have failed.
Life is short and we should live it for ourselves, the values, and the people we care about.
The challenge here is that we have been should on for so long and so consistently that we have a hard time separating out what we really want and what we have been told over and over again that we should want. I’ve found it liberating to think about some of those should’s that I’m no longer prioritizing: better car, bigger house, career ladder climbing, professional association leadership, buying a cabin, and more. Liberating myself from living my life toward these goals that may be nice, but aren’t key to my happiness, has freed me up to prioritize other things that do make me happy and connect with my values.