Why Shoulding Your Way Through Life Is So Dangerous

In a world that puts so much emphasis on appearances and external indicators of success, shoulding is common and in some cases outright dangerous.

Many of my clients start out with fixed mindsets or full of “shoulds” for what they do and how they do it. Like them, I played by a strict set of rules, swimming in a sea of musts, shoulds, “I am this way” and “the world is that way” for most of my life. I have a lot of compassion for those who work this way to their own detriment.

Because what often appear to be logical, practical, and in some cases seemingly ethical guardrails in reality act as prisons. It’s not that the “shoulds” themselves are right or wrong. They’re beliefs, so they’re non falsifiable. Just like political ideology or religion, you can’t argue with them either way (this is why purely cognitive approaches to coaching and therapy fall short, in my opinion).

Shoulding can override our instincts, values, and our connection to our strengths, leading us down paths that don’t feel right for us. If that weren’t bad enough, shoulding has a number of negative effects on our character and ability to cope, including:

  1. Decision blinders and opportunity costs galore. The shoulds blind us to lots of viable options, and we don’t pull the trigger on opportunities available to us because we can’t see them.
  2. Decreased sense of agency and self-esteem. We have a sense that we’re not in the driver’s seat (because we’re not), and our self-esteem suffers. We may feel guilty, ashamed, or not even believe we can do what we want — even if others can.
  3. Inflexibility of action, fixed mindset, reduced resilience. We have a limited repertoire of available responses and we tend to think that we “are” a certain way (for good). When challenges confront us we resort to particular patterns of behavior that may have worked in the past but may be less adaptive currently.
  4. Depending on particular external circumstances to feel “safe.” Operating based on shoulds means we often feel thrown or overwhelmed when the world around us doesn’t act or respond to us in a particular way.
  5. Limited appreciation or tolerance of diversity. Even if we’re not particularly judgmental of others (and we often are, in subtle ways), we find it difficult to relate because we’re not connected to ourselves even. We can’t appreciate others’ experiences when we can’t appreciate our own.

The deeper the shoulds run, the more profound their effects — all the way down to the bedrock of our gestures, habits and personalities. The people that operate based on shoulds — particularly when these don’t align with their internal truths and motivators — tend to be the people that feel the least free, the least fulfilled, and the least authentic. They may be competent, but they’ll never reach their full potential and they’re not likely to be particularly happy or relatable.

Shoulding is not only limiting and unnecessary — depending on how far it’s taken it can be downright dangerous and detrimental to our health. It directly harm others when hostile judgments are turned outwards, not to mention the indirect negative impact of stifling our gifts.

The upside is that releasing ourselves from shoulds is one of the most profound, rewarding and empowering experiences we can give ourselves. On the other side of shoulding lies our hearts and souls, our strengths and superpowers, our deepest drivers and our most unbounded capacities to do work we love, and/or work that feels more than worthwhile. Beyond shoulding we have access to more aliveness, lightness, joy, creativity, and purpose. In finding ourselves, we can transcend.

And yes it’s confusing. Yes it’s often messy. Learning to trust ourselves over our shoulds can feel like learning to walk. We feel shaky, the path unknown and hazardous.

It’s a journey well worth taking.

Because while the path out of shoulding feels risky, the rewards are endless— and it’s not nearly as dangerous as the alternative.

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