A problem I hear all the time in my personal life and as a therapist is what people think they “should” do. “Shoulding yourself” was a term that was created by Clayton Barbeau, a marriage and family therapist. It refers to the tendency to impose unrealistic or external expectations on yourself. These expectations are often based on societal norms, cultural influences, family dynamics, or even personal beliefs about what you think you “should” be doing or where you “should be” at this point in your life. It may seem like a small thing, but that one word, “should”, can be a powerful force that greatly influences your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
These guilt-laden “should” statements only get more pronounced during the holiday season. It’s supposed to be the season for joy, festivities, and quality time with loved ones. Unfortunately, the holiday season can also bring about a unique set of challenges, especially when it comes to the pervasive and guilt-laden habit of “shoulding yourself”. So let’s explore how the pressure of expectations during the holidays can lead to “shoulding”, and how freeing yourself from these pressures can foster a more joyful and fulfilling holiday experience.
"It may seem like a small thing, but that one word 'should', can be a poweful force that greatly influences your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors"
Common Holiday "Shoulds" (aka Stressors)
The Perfect Celebration: “I should host the perfect holiday gathering in my spotless and put-together home with flawless decorations, and a gourmet feast.” The pressure to create a picture-perfect celebration can be overwhelming and create a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety.
The Best Gifts: “I should buy everyone (including my co-workers) the most thoughtful and expensive gifts.” The desire to impress others by buying the perfect gifts can put a heavy strain on your budget, your mental health, and your relationship. (Side note: One of the biggest strains on a relationship/marriage is finances.)
Family Harmony/Time: “I should ensure that my family gets along and that there’s no conflicts.” The pursuit for a conflict-free holiday may set unrealistic and stressful expectations for family dynamics. Or “I should travel to go spend the holidays with my family” (even though it’s often a toxic environment for everyone involved). The holidays can often create a feeling of guilt to spend time with family members, despite the fact that time with them is often filled with emotional, mental, or even physical harm/abuse.
Overflowing Social Calendar: “I should attend every holiday party and event.” When you try to be everywhere at once it can leave you feeling drained and diminish the joy of the season.
Living Other's Ideals: “I’m 30 years old, I should be married and have kids already, and I know my family is going to ask about it”. Holding yourself (or others holding you) to unrealistic standards or ideals can contribute to chronic stress and anxiety. Not to mention, the fear of falling short of these expectations can create a constant state of tension that will impact both your mental and emotional well-being.
Breaking Free from the Holiday "Shoulds"
So, how do you stop this problem? Here are a few ways to stop “shoulding” all over yourself this holiday season.
Practice Self-Awareness: If you know yourself, what you want in life, and what is important to you, the guilt that you “should do “something isn’t as powerful. Increasing your self-awareness allows you to step back and evaluate whether these expectations are realistic or if they’re even aligned with your value system. Whenever you notice these “should” statements ask yourself: Why do I believe I should? What do I fear will happen if I don’t? Do I really want to do this, or is it something/someone else that’s influencing me to do it?
Change your Self-Talk: There is so much power in your words, especially the words you tell yourself. When you tell yourself “I should” do something, it often leaves you feeling like a powerless victim. However if you change your words to “I want/can/will/am/ get to” do something, it can shift your mindset and feelings to ones of empowerment and excitement and consequently relieve the unnecessary pressure. For example, when I sat down to write this I told myself “I should do this”. But then I caught myself and changed my inner dialogue to “I want to write this because this could help others enjoy this holiday season and relieve some of the pressure.” (Side note: This step works best if you’ve already practiced self-awareness and know what’s important to you).
Cultivate Self-Compassion and Release Yourself from Others’ Expectations: Embrace imperfections and remember that the holidays are about connection and shared experiences, not perfection. Be kind to yourself when things don’t go as planned. Besides, aren't some of the best moments those that don’t go as expected? Also, keep in mind that everyone has strengths and areas of growth and that’s perfectly ok!
Focus on Mindfulness and Meaningful Connections: Instead of trying to please everyone, prioritize quality time with loved ones. Meaningful connections and shared experiences often have more value than expensive gifts or perfectly orchestrated events. Also remember to stay present in the moment and savor the joy of the season. Mindfulness can help you appreciate the simple pleasures of the holidays without getting caught up in the “shoulds”.
Set Realistic Boundaries/Expectations: Ask yourself what expectations align with your values and needs. Then establish clear boundaries with yourself, whether it’s related to social commitments, finances, gift-giving, or hosting responsibilities. Communicate with others about your limits to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
"Instead of trying to please everyone, prioritize quality time with loved ones. Meaningful connections and shared experiences often have more value than expensive gifts..."
Daily Practice of "Non-Shoulding"
Not shoulding is a daily practice. It is akin to a muscle that needs to be exercised to become a bit stronger. Not shoulding is a self-care practice and a good form of boundary setting. When you engage in what you "want" or "can" do versus what you "should" do, your "no" and "no thank you" feels stronger for you and is firmer for others.
I encourage you to approach this holiday season (and each day thereafter) with a mindself of self-compassion and authenticity. Free yourself from the “shoulds” so that you can enjoy a holiday experience that aligns with your values, fosters genuine and enriching connections, and brings true joy. Remember, the most meaningful holiday celebrations are those that reflect your authentic self and create cherished memories with loved ones.