Breaking free from the “Should” trap

Image credit: 5 Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word “should” creeps into our thoughts? It’s that little voice inside our heads, the one that seems to have an opinion about everything we do. Last week, I had a close encounter with my inner critic.

I had the privilege of conducting an in-person leadership development workshop. I was excited and fully prepared to engage with my audience. However, upon arrival, I encountered a series of electronic challenges. My MacBook, often considered a fashion statement, refused to sync with the organization’s system. Panic set in as I realized I needed to dial into their Teams meeting to present my materials. Unfortunately, my data did not work, and the guest WIFI password proved elusive. To exacerbate matters, the on-site IT support person persistently asked if I had another laptop. Then, the ultimate blow struck: the sound system malfunctioned, rendering my carefully planned introduction useless.

In that chaotic moment, I heard it—the relentless voice of my inner judge. “You should have left earlier to give yourself more time to deal with this,” it scolded. “You should have had a backup plan, such as downloading the music onto your phone,” it chastised. “You should have brought an external hard drive as a backup and should have been better prepared for the unforeseen.”

“Should have, should have, should have…” The inner critic was on a rampage, criticizing me in a moment when I was already feeling stressed and anxious. Fortunately, I remained calm, worked with the resources at my disposal, and adapted. I improvised a different opening for my presentation on the spot, and it worked beautifully. I focused my attention on the important work before me.

But here’s the realization that emerged from this chaotic moment: ‘should’ is often the hallmark of our inner critic, ever ready to pounce on our perceived failures in moments when we already feel stressed or compromised. This inner critic, with its relentless ‘shoulds,’ doesn’t just criticize; it can relentlessly undermine our confidence and self-esteem. It makes us feel worse about ourselves, robbing us of vital energy and stealing our peace of mind.

The very nature of ‘should’ implies something we should have done in the past. When we succumb to the inner critic, we remain stuck in the past, dwelling there. Instead, let’s approach ‘shoulds’ with a healthy perspective. They contain information that can guide us on our path to personal growth. For instance, ‘I should have put everything on an external drive’ is an insight I can use in the future.

How often does ‘should’ creep into our thoughts? “I should have started that project earlier,” instead of rushing to finish. Or, “I should have chosen a healthier lunch,” or “I should have fixed that leak,” or “I should have been more patient,” or “I should have made time for that important phone call.”

So, the next time you hear that inner voice wielding the word ‘should,’ take a moment to pause and extend empathy toward yourself. Recognize the ‘should’ for what it truly is—an opportunity to gain valuable information. In these moments, we have the power of choice. Instead of descending into a negative space, let’s consciously remain in a positive frame of mind that empowers us to learn and evolve. By doing so, we not only reclaim our power but also become architects of our own self-improvement journey.

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