It was the second month of 9th grade, and I was invited to sit at a new table in the cafeteria at lunch. I was happy, excited, and smiling to meet some new friends - I didn’t know anyone at the table except for the kid who invited me.
As I stretched my leg over the bench to sit down, one boy made a joke about my high forehead and a few people laughed.
He shouldn’t have done that. It was mean.
I went from feeling open, connected, and happy to feeling alone, isolated, and sad. The joke lasted just moments for everyone else, but I held onto it a lot longer, and I changed who I was because of it.
I shouldn’t have held onto it so long. It wasn’t helpful, and for years I used the experience as evidence to play it safer socially.
Later in high school, someone asked me out and I wanted to say no. But saying no would’ve conflicted with that nice guy persona I had learned to wear so well, so I instead said yes.
I should’ve been honest. I should've known I could be both honest and leave the person respected, honored, and acknowledged in the conversation.
When I asked my wife to marry me, it was over the phone. I was living in California and she was living in DC. I should’ve done it more romantically, more creatively, more lovingly.
In various classrooms throughout my career, students have sometimes behaved in ways that they shouldn’t have. They should’ve been quieter, paid more attention, worked harder, cared more.
Should is an argument with reality.
When we hold fast to a should, it blurs our vision of reality. As Byron Katie says, “When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100 percent of the time.”
Finger-pointing shoulds are a poison: when we drink a should, it usually hurts us and doesn't change a thing outside us. Shoulds can eat away at our mental and physical well-being. Sure, anger, self-righteousness, regret, and hatred feel good in a certain way, but not in the powerful, clear, and warm way that love, compassion, ease, and peace of mind feel. And sure, shoulds sometimes inspire us to action, but usually not inspired and free action from our true genius.
Finger-pointing shoulds are adolescent, and they're an effective way to avoid being responsible.
From my journal a month or so ago: my 13-year-old at home - he should be kinder to me, to his brother, and to his mother. He should let go of his anger more easily. He should be more considerate of others. He should try harder in basketball practice. He should be grateful for this amazing life he’s got.
Then, I used what Byron Katie calls a “turnaround” - taking a statement and recreating an opposite version of it. Is the opposite version as true or truer than the original?
My mouth hit the floor:
I should be kinder to him, his brother, his mother
I should let go of my anger more easily
I should be more considerate of others
I should try harder
I should be grateful for this amazing teenager
All of those are more true than the shoulds I had about him! The shoulds I was throwing at my son I could easily apply to myself. I’m living in a glass house throwing stones, I’m saying to be better and then acting poorly myself.
My shoulds related to my son had nothing to do with him and everything to do with my perception of him. By holding up a mirror and looking at myself, I was able to use those shoulds to transform who I am as a dad, a husband, and a man - and my level of love and ease around my son grew exponentially.
Yes, finger-pointing shoulds are a way to avoid being responsible, even when things really should be that way!
If we've got a complaint or we're feeling frustrated, there's always a finger-pointing should. Whenever we hear a should coming out of our mouths, we have an opportunity to turn it around and ask ourselves where we can be responsible.
People should treat each other kindly.
People should care more about the environment.
People should learn to respect, love, honor, and welcome all views and colors.
That’s where freedom, effectiveness, well-being, and satisfaction lie - not in the victim-land of a finger-pointing should, but in the agency of responsibility.
When we are willing to take responsibility no matter the should, a whole new world of results and experience become available to us.
In this post, I'm not suggesting that we sit back and take a beating in life. Instead, I'm suggesting that we put the should aside and tap into our well of creativity to honor what could be true in our world and in our experience.
Thanks so much for reading. ❤️