Shoulding on ourselves is an unhelpful way to try and motivate our inaction into movement. If it were effective, don’t you think those of us navigating grief, shame, doubt, fear, and anxiety around our choices would be the most motivated and productive among us? This week’s conversation is for the grievers who want to stop shoulding on themselves and start shifting into a more helpful, gentle, and supportive inner narrative. After all, the inner world you inhabit directly impacts your exterior world for you and everyone you encounter.
What does it mean to should on yourself? Aside from being a funny sounding phrase, shoulding on ourselves is when use shame-driven language to criticize the decisions we’ve made or the actions we’ve avoided. You’re familiar with it – your inner critic uses this language often to tell you that you should eat better, walk more, call home. I’m sure plenty of instances are coming to mind. And we repeat these statements all the time, usually without awareness. Should can feel like a reasonable expectation which is probably why we keep trying it as a strategy to improve our circumstances.
But is it reasonable? We have so much evidence that “should language” is not only unreasonable, but unhelpful and often, harmful. “Should language” leads us to attempt an action from a starting point of shame or guilt. Guilt, or feeling that we’ve done something wrong and shame, or feeling that we are inherently wrong as people, are not meaningful or kind motivators.
I’ve encountered mental health professionals plenty of times who believe shame is a healthy motivator and I completely disagree. If you’re of the mindset that shame can be useful, let’s chat about why those changes don’t last.
Think of the phrase “Shame on you!”. You’ve used it, you’ve heard it, maybe it’s been directed at you. How did the shame being placed on you make you feel? Notice what is happening in your body, even now. There’s a chance your embodied memories are activating your nervous system, preparing for the implications and accusation of shame.
Shame is used to demotivate us from a certain behavior, action, or thought. In that regard, you can justify it as helpful. But if we continue trying to build a healthy paradigm for our life with a demotivating strategy, we will continue approaching all areas of our life with demotivation as the more powerful influence over our lives.
Demotivation doesn’t leave you feeling inspired. It doesn’t make you feel ten feet tall, accomplished and powerful and ready to tackle your biggest challenges. Demotivation makes us smaller.
As a parent, I am consistently banging the drum of positive reinforcement, because brain science tells us how much more effective it is as a teaching strategy in the short and long term. I can use redirection and reinforcement of the hopeful, positive attributes as a reminder of what we are working toward instead of shame and punishment to deter from negative behaviors.
So take the long view on this idea for a moment for yourself. After ten years of demotivational strategies for teaching and structure, how connected and attuned will you be to the person teaching you? Do you sense a response of compassion and safety with them, or do you feel a sense of mistrust and fear? What might you sense between you and the person teaching you if they’d spent that ten-year time period affirming you with positive language, redirecting mistakes as an everyday occurrence and helping you reframe the why behind your choices?
This is why our grief work needs to eradicate all the “should language” as soon as possible. There are no timelines, boundaries, or expectations on our grief process unless we put them in place, and shoulding on our timeline, boundaries, and expectations of grief keeps us locked in a shame driven narrative that ultimately demotivates us from trying any new strategies for healing or integration.
So when the “shoulds” creep in, we can reframe them into more productive ideas about our process, who we are, and who we are becoming.
When we set our own timelines, boundaries, and expectations on our grief work, we are putting an idealized experience on a pedestal. That’s not a problem, unless we fail to notice the gaps between who we are now and who we are trying to become. In grief work, we are restructuring our sense of self in the world. Loss changes who we are, and that’s okay! But that change requires our partnership so that we can steer the direction of growth instead of stumbling along and shoulding the whole way.
Take a moment to picture your grief life right now. If you could put a sentence to describe your experience or your sense of self, what would you say?
If you’re able, it would be helpful to write this down.
And once you have an idea of your present-day self and experience, picture the future self and experience of grief that you want. What does the ideal version of your grief work look like? What does a more structured, idealized self-look like, within reason, in the next four months?
You can visualize self a little further out than four months if you’d like, but a shorter time frame can make this “shoulding” work more accessible to begin.
If you have both sentences written out, or can hold them in your mind, observe them. Where is the gap between the states of being? How far from today is your idealized grief experience? How wide is the gap between your sense of self today and the sense of self you’d like to embody?
This is typically where the “shoulds” creep in, so if you notice your thoughts popping up right now with shoulding language, that’s okay. Those automatic negative thoughts can be conquered with awareness – that’s what we’re doing! So what “should” are you telling yourself right now?
Take a moment to notice any shoulding language that has come up and if you can, notice how it makes you feel as well. Remember, the should language is demotivating – it may seem like it can inspire you to change your grieving habits, but a directive like “You should cry less often” is vague, unhelpful, critical, and mean. You can cry as often as you’d like, but if the idealized version of your self and grief experience includes less crying, then we can strategize for that goal with positive reinforcement and meaningful language instead of shame for your very reasonable, expected, and welcome tears.
By now, you can probably see a gap between the version of you today and tomorrow, and you can sense at least one “should statement” that showed up to try and make better of a complicated situation.
Instead of leaning into the should (and we’ll stick with crying for an example), how could we invite ourselves into a positive response around this gap we want to cross?
If the idealized self-cries less often, what tools do we know are meaningful support for our tears? Do we know what tears are trying to tell us?
My friend Benjamin Perry wrote an entire book on the value of tears and crying, so if you’d like to learn more about it you can listen to his chat from the show in episode 99 or you can get his book Cry Baby anywhere.
But one thing I loved about this chat was how we discussed the purpose of tears – they’re not just a leak in our hardware or a glitch in our programming. I love tears, and I’ve talked about them a ton on the show so I’ll try not to get too far down this rabbit trail. My point is this – our tears have a reason. We’re not crying just to cry, most of the time. Maybe we’re in pain and our brain released tears to send endorphins for survival.
This isn’t just physical pain, although you could argue as such since the mind/brain is part of the physical body. This is true for emotional pain, too. Our tears are a waving flag that we need support and compassion, but we’re so used to shutting down our needs and emotions that crying has been treated like a weakness or a lack of maturity.
Can you see how tears, often vilified, could provide the positive reinforcement behind a more healing practice? I sure can. Lately, I’ve noticed moments when tears feel ready and simply let them fall. It’s been around every single stimulus you could imagine: cute animal videos, stories of loss, hilarious celebrity impressions, joy over my child’s successes, sorrow with my child’s defeats. The way I handle myself when tears fall is based on how I perceive my idealized self and the relationship I’ve allowed to each of these encounters.
It is our choice to cry when we want to, to feel deeply when we want to, to numb when we want to. When someone else applies shame and shoulds to our experience, they are denying our choice to exist how we want to. In so few words, they’ve centered their discomfort for the sake of protecting themselves.
Recently, my child encountered an adult consistently telling them they had “no reason to cry.” My brave kiddo cried anyway, allowing herself to feel what needed to be felt. When we talked through the encounter, I learned this was the most recent in many conversations where she felt shamed for expressing what felt painful in her life. When others around us lack emotional intelligence, it is really challenging to even push back. I helped my daughter find her own language for this person, allowing her to have a reply at the ready so she felt more self-assured and confident. But when it came to the moment, she was unable to tell this person, “My reason to cry is mine, not yours.”
How would you respond if someone said you had no reason to cry? Let’s imagine you’ve told another person, ‘Buck up, that’s nothing to cry about.’ Can you hear how that phrase invalidates their pain? Imagine the platitudes you’ve received – especially the one when another human insists your person wouldn’t want you to be sad and crying. That’s not about you. That’s about the pain someone else feels and the way they think you should be acting.
In that moment, no matter which side of the conversation you’re on, give yourself permission to pause. Your inner critic may be noisy at this point, condemning you for shoulding on yourself or others. Let your inner critic speak, but notice as it does that it is also working to protect your right to feel how you feel. If you’re the one feeling shamed, remember: You have every right to grieve, cry, feel, and express – especially if your situation is complicated. I know people who’ve caused pain and then grieve the pain they’ve caused – and so do you. That doesn’t mean you have no right to cry over what has happened.
And if you are the one shaming another’s tears, your inner critic might be embarrassed at your own lack of emotional intelligence. That’s okay – in fact, it’s super helpful! Because now that we’re creating awareness of it, we can shift the behavior for next time. We can apologize for shoulding on our friend or loved one. We can learn by asking what might have been a more helpful response.
When we shift these shoulds into a moment of reflection, we catalyze the energy of the moment into a healing opportunity instead of allowing the energy to drop us into disconnection from others and ourselves. Your noisy inner critic will be so grateful you’ve listened, and probably pretty grateful to be let off the protection hook, too. We’ve allowed them to demotivate us from certain behaviors or thoughts out of fear for too long. Now we will let them rest, and instead inspire us to action and great acts of self-compassion out of love.
Thank you for listening to episode 118 of Restorative Grief. I love talking about should language, because it helps us identify people in our lives that are available and capable of helping us find healing. When I first started in grief work, I began collecting all the grief professionals I could find. But it took me years (and still does, sometimes) to notice the way each of them use language and either positive reinforcement or demotivation to affect change. It’s sneaky, because should language often sounds like motivational speaking, sound psychological principles, or kindness. Learning to notice it in ourselves allows us to hear it from others, and that’s where we are able to shift our own approach and mindset for the better.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, welcome to your new favorite podcast. I love creating shorter essay episodes for you and alternating interviews with brilliant minds and grievers just like you and me. There is no one on earth immune to grief, although it will look and feel differently for every one of us. Learning to see our grief in a new light is crucial to our wholeness and healing. If you appreciated this episode, please consider subscribing tot he show and leaving a five star review. I would love if you could share this episode with a friend or on your social media as well. Check out the show notes for more resources from Restorative Grief, as well as a link to the Patreon if you’re interested in joining our Discord channel or gaining bonus episodes.
And as always, one last thing. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from this episode: