How to Ditch the ‘Shoulds’ in Your Life

How to Ditch the ‘Shoulds’ in Your Life

Emily ColwellFear of the Unknown, Inner Peace, Mindfulness Leave a Comment

Can you feel how ‘shoulds’ shut you down? They cut you off from letting yourself dream bigger or beyond where you are. They convince you that it’s not ok to have what you want or to follow the trail of nudges guiding you to new aspects of you.  They inhibit your connection with your Inner Compass, leaving your focus dependent upon outside expectations for your life.

I hated that I trembled. I didn’t understand it, but I always knew I could count on the shaking to accompany me up and down that aisle at church each week. And my dad’s an Episcopal priest, so I walked up MANY an aisle for communion!

Was this a shake that others could see?  Nah. No one knew I shook except my family. I’d quietly show my sisters my trembling hands and legs when we got back to our seats each week.  Why didn’t anyone else know? Because I hid it well and had lots of tricks to appear calm, all while my legs struggled to hold my body up.

But just like that, my shaking vanished when I was 38. And you know what I’d done the evening before? I’d shared with my cousins that I was dating a woman (who went on to become my wife). They’d only known me to date men. I had, too, until three years earlier.

You see, when I fell in love with a woman for the first time a few years earlier, it felt incredibly confusing. I’d never envisioned being in a romantic relationship with a woman. It challenged my very sense of self, my identity, my plans for my future.  And it challenged the expectations I believed others held for me.

Here’s the thing. I was an excellent rule follower. And dating a woman felt like I was breaking the rules. Whose rules?  Everyones.  Were all these rules and expectations verbalized? Often not. Were they always real?  Certainly not. But they felt incredibly real to me at the time, and they guided every step of my life.

Have you ever felt that way? That you’re expected to live your life in a certain way? Or maybe you don’t even realize outside expectations are guiding how your living.  Sometimes it’s the only way you’ve ever known.

When I look back at all those times I trembled walking past all the parishioners and up the aisle for communion, I assumed my shaking was a bad thing, that I was too sensitive. What I didn’t understand is that my trembling was, in fact, a messenger.  It was my Inner Compass trying to get my attention. She wanted me to understand just how pressure-filled it was for me to measure how I was doing according to outside expectations, whether real or imagined. She wanted me to understand there was an easier way.

When I started dating that first woman at 35, I found myself questioning, in a new way, whose rules I wanted to follow: my own, or those placed on me from the outside.  I noticed how I was living my life and what I was doing that felt aligned for me and what I was doing because I thought I SHOULD.

That was a big moment, people! And it might be for you, too. Whether it’s related to your relationship(s), job, place of residence, friends, or something else altogether, are you in the situation because you WANT to be or because you think you SHOULD be?  If you notice that you feel you have no choice, pause, and see whether you think you SHOULD stay in it because you think you’re expected to.

Can you feel how ‘shoulds’ shut you down? They cut you off from letting yourself dream bigger or beyond where you are. They convince you that it’s not ok to have what you want or to follow the trail of nudges guiding you to new aspects of you.  They inhibit your connection with your Inner Compass, leaving your focus dependent upon outside expectations for your life.

And guess what? This doesn’t feel good.  And it’s not supposed to! When our day-to-day choices are made based upon others’ expectations of us, whether they’re personal or societal, this cuts us off from ourselves.

I learned this when, at 38, I started dating the woman who would one day become my wife. Something in me relaxed. I felt more like myself than ever. And rather than worrying that my girlfriend news would go against the expectations my cousins held for me, instead my focus was on sharing with them something I knew to be aligned for me on the inside of my soul. Instead of wondering if I was doing things the ‘right’ way, I KNEW I was because it didn’t feel like a should. It felt like a YES.

And do you notice the remarkable thing that happened from this?! I shared my news of having a girlfriend with my cousins, and the very next day, my 30+ years of church trembles were GONE! Just gone.

At first, I was puzzled by this. But over time, I’ve come to understand that I took ownership of my expectations for my own life that night. I laid down others’ expectations, whether real or imagined, and declared that my own counted the most. And suddenly, my shaking no longer needed to be the messenger trying to call me back home to myself. 

I was reminded of this when I recently waited for my colonoscopy results and worried they might come back concerning. After sitting in that worry for a bit, I moved into the awareness that this is the only life I’ve got. It’s the only life we each have. And we never know when it will be over. Yes, I know that likely sounds morbid. But it’s also an empowering wake-up call. It reminded me, yet again, to notice the parts of my life being lived with shoulds, convincing me I don’t have a choice and that what I want isn’t possible.

While ‘shoulds’ don’t own me the way they did for so long, they still show up in my life because they’re part of our human journey! And contrary to what our thinking minds often believe, it’s freeing to discover where the shoulds are showing up in our present moments. It allows us to explore what the shoulds are, as well as our authentic desires that are being inhibited by these shoulds. The process invites us back home.

Some of you may read this and feel pressured to get to work,  rooting out all the shoulds in your life. If this is you, I invite you to pause. Trying to get to the bottom of all the shoulds will keep you on an endless hamster wheel.

We’ll always be able to find more shoulds in our lives! It’s not about eradicating them. It’s about curiously noticing the ones that are showing up in THIS moment of your life. Those are the ones that are impacting you now. And coming to know them has the power to transform your now, too:-)

Some Power Questions that can be helpful to play with as you explore this for yourself (If you’re new to Power Questions, click here to learn more: How to Gain a Fresh Perspective in Challenging Moments

  • What if it turns out that as I let go of the shoulds in my life, I’ll feel more and more at home with myself?

  • I wonder what I’ll discover I WANT to do if I let go of what I’m convinced I SHOULD to do?

So I ask you, where are the shoulds showing up in your life right now?  If you could let go of the shoulds and outside expectations, what would you WANT to do, and how would you want to feel? What are your authentic desires hidden behind those shoulds? This is your one, wondrous life. And you get to make the rules and define your OWN expectations. What will they be? ❤️

P.S. If you’ve been enjoying my weekly blogs and are itching for more daily inspiration, friend me on Facebook (Emily Colwell) or follow me on Instagram (dr.emily_colwell).  I post frequently and humor leaks into most of my posts!


Emily Colwell, MSSW, ND

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