Where We Learn to Hurt Ourselves (aka the Origin of Should)

This post is part of a series about “should”

We learn about shoulds from seeing other people judge us, themselves, and others. For the sake of this (admittedly one-sided) conversation, let’s say that to judge is to decide if something is good or bad, right or wrong. A judgment is very much an exercise in should. If something is the way it should be, then we judge it to be good. If something is not the way it should be, then we judge it to be bad.

Other people judge us, from the moment we are born and throughout our lives. Starting from when we are very young, other people communicate to us that we should be behaving in one way or another; that certain behaviors mean we are good and that others mean we are, at the very least, not good, and maybe even bad. We also observe others judging themselves and judging others, constantly applying shoulds. From all this we learn that there are right ways to be and wrong ways to be, that we should behave in some ways and not in others, because people who do what they should are good and people who do what they shouldn’t are bad. Once we’ve learned that point, we have internalized the should.

Maybe we internalize the notion of judgment because we trust the opinion of others who have judged us. Maybe we’re very young and they’re our parents, whom we love and trust and rely on. Maybe they are our mentors or our good friends or our romantic partners or our children, whom we also love and trust, and whose opinions of us matter. Maybe they are spiritual or religious leaders. Maybe a fictional character, in a book or in a show, is judging another character that we relate to. There are many people from whom we can learn that we should behave in one way and we should not behave in another way.

Once we internalize the shoulds, we begin applying them to ourselves. Every discomfort we have is multiplied by our resistance to the discomfort. We resist our experience of pain, believing that things should already be different right now, that the past should have been different, that we should have behaved differently or others should have behaved differently or that the world should be different – and Pain Becomes Suffering.

Before the Should

  • “Ouch! It hurt when I fell off my bike after I turned too sharply.”
  • “Oh boy, once again it’s 2:30am and I’m watching Netflix instead of sleeping”.
  • “I’m starting to feel lonely with this stay-at-home situation, even with my family around.’

After the Should

  • “Ouch! That was really dumb of me to turn so sharply. I should have known better. I’m such an idiot”
  • “What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so weak-willed that I can’t even go to bed on time?”
  • “Why can’t I just enjoy this time with my family? What’s wrong with me that I feel lonely even though I have my family around?”

There is a world of difference between those two ways of talking to ourselves. When you are feeling bad, how often do you talk to yourself in the first way, and how often in the second?