So many of our day-to-day problems and stressors all boil down to one nasty little word: SHOULD. I should be nicer to my spouse. I should answer my phone when my brother calls. My boss should be more appreciative of me. My husband should take out the trash. My parents should respect my approach to parenting. I am willing to wager that if each of us could cut that nasty word out of our lives and changed nothing else, we would be markedly happier.
Where do these “shoulds” come from?
Is there some universal guidebook out there that dictates how our family members, significant others, or friends should act? Is there some instruction manual that everyone else has but me? How does everyone know how they are supposed to act or what they should do in any given situation? Did someone forget to give me my copy?
The truth is that these shoulds are all just thoughts. There is no requirement that you must answer every call from your family member in order to be a good sister. There is also no requirement that your boss respect you or appreciate you or even give you credit for your work.
Every adult human being on the face of this planet has the absolute right to act any way that they want.
Their “shoulds” probably don’t match your shoulds. They are not going to act how you want them or expect them to act, no matter how hard you try.
Despite this truth, we spend so much time and effort being frustrated and irritated that our husband isn’t taking out the trash or that our friend never answers her phone when we call her. Modern therapists will often tell you that you need to communicate your needs to these people so that they can rise up and satisfy your needs. While I agree that communication is essential for any healthy relationship, I also believe there is something much more nefarious about this approach.
Let’s be honest. The real reason we are so frustrated is because these people are not acting how we want them to act.
And even when we tell them how we want them to act, they don’t do it and then we really get pissed and the relationship tension skyrockets. The problem is that when we tell someone these are my needs and I would like you to satisfy them so that I can be happier with our relationship, we are giving them all of our power. If the theory underlying that request is true, we are all screwed because the only way we can be happy based upon that theory is if the other person does what we ask.
How has that worked out for you?
I’m guessing not very well. Humans don’t want to be controlled or manipulated so that others can feel a certain way and no one should have that much power over your happiness. When we take this approach, we are basically saying The only way I can be happy with our relationship is if you will change your behavior to align with my needs. This sure looks like manipulation’s closely related cousin. We are trying to change others’ behavior; we are trying to control them in order to be happy. That does not seem like a recipe for a healthy relationship.
The only person who can influence and control your happiness is you.
What is really swirling around in the background and driving these relationship disputes are a whole lot of shoulds. He should be more affectionate . . . my boss should be nicer when she gives me feedback . . . she shouldn’t talk down to me . . . He should know the trash needs to go out, etc. These shoulds form a framework, we call a manual. The reason we think all of these things is because we have a manual of how a husband/boss/co-worker/friend is supposed to act. We have all these expectations about how these relationships are supposed to work. What’s more is that we rarely communicate these manuals to the people in our lives.
One of the first things I recommend in order to improve your relationships with other humans in your orbit is to first be aware of all the shoulds passing through your brain. Write them down. Don’t judge yourself for having them – that’s really just another should prancing around: You shouldn’t be so critical/judgmental, whatever. It’s just not productive. Be honest and write down all those expectations and thoughts. Once you have a clear sense of your secret manuals, you can start evaluating whether or not each element of the manual is important to you. Is it really important to you to believe that your husband should send you flowers on your birthday? Why? What are you making it mean when he doesn’t? Are those thoughts valid? Are they serving you and your relationship? Do you like your reasoning?
Now, we are not preparing instructions for a mail-order human here; at this point we just focus on what is really important to us because once we know that we can decide how to communicate that to the people in our lives. That is why it is so critical to evaluate the importance of each element in your manual – if you are too embarrassed to communicate that to the person at issue, then it’s probably not that important.
Now, here is the really critical piece of it . . . if and when you decide to express your “manual” to the other person, that person has the absolute right to choose to meet those expectations or to choose not to meet those standards. That person has no obligation to change to fit into your manual.
As a human, they can choose to act in any way that they want to. Period.
At this point, the work begins: you must accept that this person can choose to disregard your manual and that their choice is their choice and does not mean anything negative about you. You get to choose to be happy about the relationship, even where the other person doesn’t fit your manual. You can choose to think that you spoke your peace and feel resolution in that regard but you must release any and all expectation relating to their actions.
You are responsible for your happiness. Not them.
Most people choose to express their needs and get angry when the other person doesn’t change to satisfy them. That never works out. If you don’t want to live your life experiencing that result over and over again, you must choose to be happy with the relationship as it is and accept the other person for who they are – not what you are desperately trying to mold them into. Think about it. How do you YOU feel when someone tries to get you to act in a way that you don’t want to or when someone tries to make you do something you don’t want to?
These “shoulds” are arbitrary and capricious expectations that we have created with our thoughts and that we can change.
For example, if you think My boss should not need to yell at me in the hallway in front of everyone. You can decide whether your expectations of your boss are important enough for you to discuss with him/her directly. Whether you have the discussion or not, just know that he does not have to change to fit into your model of a “good boss” and he probably won’t. He is acting just as he should – we know because that is how he is acting! He can choose to act in any way that he wants and he doesn’t need to change for your to feel better about your worth or skills.
The reason you feel crappy isn’t because of him yelling at you in the hallway. You feel crappy because of what you are making it mean when he yells at you. Because of what you are thinking about it – I am so embarrassed, everyone is judging me, everyone thinks I’m an idiot, I can’t believe he did that to me, everyone saw and is probably talking about it. Those thoughts are what are making you feel miserable. He can yell at you and you can have completely different thoughts that aren’t going to make you feel like crap – You must be a really sad human to treat other people like that . . . when I leave this firm, I hope you see how this played a role in my decision . . . you are just really stressed about your big client that just left . . . I am good at my job and everyone knows it . . . you are just being dramatic. The point is, you don’t have to make it about you and you don’t have to make it something negative.
If you can clean up your thoughts around other people and stop thinking about how they should be acting, you will stop caring so much about that manual. It won’t matter as much because you will find that there is nothing the other person can do that will impact your happiness – that power rests with you and you alone.
Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that you should just be a doormat and let other people treat you like crap. What I’m saying is that we need to clear all the shoulds and BS from our heads before can we can clearly evaluate a relationship and make a decision about whether we want that relationship in our life. If our discomfort around another human is all being driven by unspoken expectations and manuals, we have some work to do. This work will help you examine what’s really going on without all the drama. What is really going on with this person and why does it bother you so much? It is really that important? What am I gaining from maintaining that manual for this person? Are those expectations serving me and this relationship?
I promise you, the work you will do with the manual and other humans can transform your life and your happiness. Besides, it will absolutely be easier than trying to change everyone around you, right? We all carry manuals for the people in our lives. Work with me and let me break down those shoulds so your relationships can blossom.