Lay Down The Should Shovel

Life. There is so much that we could be doing. My friend, mentor, and co-author Dr. Mary Kay Stenger says that we are human beings, but we turn ourselves into human doings. And much of the doing is driven by the “shoulds” we shovel onto ourselves and accept from others.

Most of my work centers around people and workgroups who seek to achieve more, increase happiness and joy, create better solutions, and improve communication, motivation, and decision making. And I hear all the times people do the exact opposite simply by shoveling shoulds onto themselves and others. I see all the places where people create more tasks, work, and doing by constantly living in the should place versus the being place.

The should place is a built from comparison, guilt, blame, unhealthy conflict, resistance, fear and regret, limited options, and what others believe is best for us. The should place restricts and minimizes us.

The being place is built on limitless options, creative problem solving, healthy conflict, collaboration, joy and connection to our own and to others’ strengths and abilities. The being place expands possibility.

Here is an example:

I was having dinner with a couple who’ve been together for many years; I’ll call them Dan and Trisha. We were talking about an exiting kayaking workshop they were going to be taking soon. They were so full of joy about the impending trip when the conversation turned to this:

“Hey you know, it is coming up really soon,” Day says.

“Yeah, I know. You should call for directions,” Trish responds.

“Oh, yeah, I can do that,” Dan affirms.

“And we need a to get some more supplies. You should double check the list,” Trish adds.

“Okay, I should probably go over the instructions one more time and practice some of the skills. I hope I’m ready. I should be better by now,” Dan says.

Trisha replies, “I know, I should probably get out on the water one more time and practice drills. And you should think about seeing if your brother can work with us a bit more. What if everyone else is in the group is ahead of us?”

Dan, getting more and more deflated by the mounting task list, says “Yes. I should get in touch with him. Why did we decide to do this now? There isn’t enough time to be ready.”

Their conversation went from excitement about the event to an increasing amount of pressure, obligations, and looming responsibilities.

Suddenly, Dan said, “Hey, wait a minute. Stop shoveling shoulds!” They both dissolved into peals of laughter. Dan explained to me that “shoveling shoulds” is the terminology they use to stop language where one person creates expectations without prior agreement by the other person, which sets the stage for frustration, anger, and resentment.

They then made a commitment to sit down the next night to create a list of all they desire to get done and prioritize before they leave and to brainstorm options to collaboratively move through the list.

For many years now I’ve been working on not shoveling shoulds onto my own proverbial plate or onto the plates of others. I strive to consciously correct myself by doing a turnaround on the language I’m using and to notice the thought I had right before I shoveled the should. Was it about control, manipulation, fear, or shame?

People who work with me or spend time with me socially are accustomed to hearing me stop myself or others who are shoveling shoulds. Should has almost become a swear word to me. I avoid it with much more vim and vigor than any swear I can imagine.

Most often the impetus for shoveling should is a fear. Think of the last time you used the word “should” as in “I should” or “You should.” What were you fearing? I know there are many times with my grown daughters I hear myself saying, “You should…” and then I quickly realize that I use it out of I fear they will make the wrong decision. I have no evidence they will make the wrong decision because they’ve been making great decisions in their lives for many years. The important thought here is “their lives.”

Shoulds don’t just come from within us or from our co-workers or friends. They also come from the way we interpret what we read, see, and hear. Well-meaning social media posts turn into the growing grounds for comparison and fuel our “I’m not enough” thinking errors with the “I should be doing more” messages. Marketing engines spend millions of dollars identifying what images, text, and messages will trigger your “I’m not enough” thinking errors and motivate you to buy products and services with promises of making you enough.

But what happens with “should” is it takes us out of being present and in the moment, and it moves us to either the future or the past. We lose our connection to what is happening right now, taking us further from—not closer to—what we are hoping to achieve.

“Should” invites all kinds of outside pressure and influences into your connection with yourself and with those around you. When you work and live in the should place, you are creating your own unhealthy team, a team running on false fuel. That team is made up of your judgmental co-worker, your pushy relative, or whomever else you are bringing to the project when you accept the should. But most importantly, the team is composed of your own insecure self.

I invite you to become acutely aware of the use of the word should and to no longer accept shovels full of should from yourself or from others. I invite you to begin a conscious practice of directly and clearly rejecting the should. For me, when I hear the word should (originating from me or externally), I question it and then I change the language or dismiss it. I will say out loud to someone shoveling a should, “You mean I could if I chose to do so. Right?”

Should limits possibility and options. Should minimizes empowerment and growth. Should decreases choices. Should stunts problem-solving, innovation, and creativity in its tracks. Should removes us as the expert in our lives. And should shuts doors.

Here are some simple tips for dropping the shovel of should:

  • Practice hearing the word “should.” Listen for it. Notice it. Become aware of it.
  • Before you dismiss the word, notice how it feels in your body when you hear it or say it. Does it feel constricting and limiting or expansive and freeing?
  • Play with ways to reframe or use language that feels positive, expansive, and freeing in our bodies.
  • Ask clarifying questions like: “Why shouldn’t I?” “Or why should I?” Become the ember that creates and holds space for a roaring fire of choice and options. Clarifying questions do that for us!

The next time you hear yourself shoveling shoulds, try the simple steps above. When you hear yourself saying, “I should lose 10 lbs” or “I should stay and work late on that project” or “I should have a larger retirement account by now” you can stop, congratulate yourself on the catch and reframe to “I could make choices that would help me lose 10 lbs and here are some of them” or “If I chose to stay late and work on that project the benefit would be….” or “I choose to create a plan to increase my retirement savings now, and here is a list of simple ways I can cut back expenses and increase savings.”

Imagine all the space and energy you will have for creative thinking, innovative problem-solving, and identifying action steps that not only feel better but are more aligned with forward movement!

You really should lay down that should shovel!

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