One of the things I’ve noticed about myself over the years is that I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time solving problems that I don’t actually have. You too? What the hell is that about, and more importantly, why do we do that?
One of the biggest contributors to this dilemma is our propensity to look at the way things are, and to think that they should somehow be different. Only we don’t tend to do it in a constructive way. We become attached to our “shoulds.” It happens to us far more than we’d probably like to admit.
We say things like, “It shouldn’t be so cold, it should be warmer,” or “He shouldn’t talk to me like that, he should apologize,” or “I shouldn’t feel this way, I should be happier.” Our minds craft an alternate reality that is the way things should be if they were the way we wanted them.
I hear this type of statement from my clients all the time when we’re coaching around leadership initiatives. We may be discussing a project they’re working on, and I’ll hear them say something like, “We should be further along on this project,” or, “This person should be working harder on my project.” Here’s the thing, when you become attached to the way things should be, you are actually resisting the way things are. And in that resistance, you create your own suffering.
And if that isn’t bad enough, think about this – you will respond to people and the world around you based on those expectations, those beliefs about how things should be. It can’t be any other way. We act based on what and how we think. I said this to one of my clients the other day – and I actually thought it was quite brilliant, if I do say so myself – “You cannot out-behave your thinking.” Yup. Pretty insightful, right? I know! I thought so, too!
When you’re holding on to a should be, you are not seeing what is. And in your conversation with the other person(s), you may not be telling them what you’re thinking, but I promise you it’s in the room and affecting your conversation. You may be more terse than usual or there will be an edge to your voice. And when we are speaking to others from a place that is disingenuous or not forthcoming, they will feel it. They might not know exactly what’s going on, but this will create distrust because there’s something that isn’t being said.
“Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in while, or the light won’t come in.” – Alan Alda
Listen, I’m not saying that you can’t want things to be better, different. It’s in the attachment to the way we want things to be that we experience discontent, pain, and eventually suffering. We’re actually fighting reality, and as self-help author and teacher Byron Katie would say, “You can continue to fight reality all you want. You’re only going to lose 100% of the time.”
So what do we do, then, when things aren’t the way we want them to be? Am I suggesting that we simply give in, accept the unacceptable, and go on our merry way? Nope. Not at all. I’m not that fatalistic. Here’s what I am saying – don’t be attached to your ideas about how things should be. Instead, be more intentional about how you use your thoughts. Here is a framework to help you when you find yourself wrestling with your shoulds.
First, ask yourself, “Is this true?” Can I absolutely know that this is true? Can I say with absolute certainty that this person should be working harder on my project? What other things am I not seeing? Are there obstacles, challenges, or could they be overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to do? What might I not know, see, or realize? Be more intentional in investigating your thoughts.
“If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes our assumptions and preconceived notions are wrong, and therefore, our interpretation of events is incorrect. This causes us to overreact, to take things personally, or to judge people unfairly.” – Elizabeth Thornton
Second, ask, “What part of this do I control?” Do I have any control over how hard someone else works? Is that my business or is it theirs? Are they meeting expectations or not? (That is a better measure of performance than a subjective and nebulous “should be working harder.”) If it’s something I don’t control, then what is my role in creating change in this area? Is there a resource I can look to?
Third, and maybe most important, “How would I feel or respond if I were to let go of this thought?” This one question is where freedom lies. Freedom from judgment, pain, and suffering. Remember, you cannot out-behave your thinking. (Yes, I know I said it again, but it’s just so relevant. Deal with it.) If I were to let go of this “should be,” then I might actually be free to see things more as they are, rather than through a lens of disappointment, anger, or pain. It’s in your clinging to the should that pain and suffering occur. Then, when I interact with this person, that underlying discontent will not affect my conversation, creating distrust. If I let go of my attachment to how things should be, I have the ability to rise above the trivial and see the meaningful.
In conclusion, as someone once said to me, “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!” I know, not a pretty picture. But that is exactly what we do when we become attached to how things should be. It’s time to be more intentional with your thoughts. If things are not the way you wish them to be, great. Ask, “If I could change this situation, what would I want it to look like?” Then, identify the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Formulate your strategy and get to work. That is far more productive and will result in a much higher probability of success than simply living in the world of “should be.”
Let me know your thoughts on this! When you observe your own patterns, where are you stuck in the land of “should be?” It’s time to learn a new, productive, and far less painful way to deal with change.