One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about therapists is that we are here to give advice to our clients. I won’t speak for every therapist in the various approaches to this profession but let me tell you something: I don’t include giving advice as part of my job. The power of therapy and the skill that therapists learn within their different schools of thought is to provide a space whereby a person can look at the same thing from different perspectives. Within this space, through these different perspectives, clients end up finding the solutions to their difficulties on their own. And that’s what makes a difference! They find it themselves. We just stand alongside them as they do it. Think about this: as much as we all want the easy way out of things, ultimately, we all need to earn something in order to enjoy it. Consider the work it takes to do a degree, to move to a new place, to be in a balanced relationship, to win a medal or an award, to have children. If you were to ask for anything, and the next day it was there waiting for you, without any effort or work, I guarantee that you’d be tired of it in no time. The same with the answers to your life. If a therapist were to tell you exactly what to do, and how to live your life, you’d probably find it amazing in the first few days or weeks, but this feeling would disappear. Why? Because you didn’t earn your answers or solutions.
So, if you’re going to therapy looking for someone to tell you what to do, think again! That’s why we often ask people: “what do YOU think you should do?” Which brings me to the topic of this week’s post: the weight of the word “should”. I still say it in therapy, every now and then, but I try to ask “what do you think you need to do?”, rather than “should do”. Psychologically, even spiritually, “should” can carry a lot of messages, mainly of not being good enough. How do you feel when people tell you that you should do something? How do you react? I often take it as not being good enough and tend to shut down. Hearing the word “should” is one of the surest ways of making my walls go up whilst interacting with other people.
I’ve often felt it throughout my life, but for many reasons, this weekend I really found myself struggling with this word. I struggled with it in relation to an area of my life where I often face the most difficulties – relationships – but it made me wonder about all the other areas where I may use “should”, and where, perhaps, the use of that word is more of a hindrance, than anything else. It was also clear to me that “should” will probably affect us more when we are already feeling tired, out of balance, and doubtful. It may be that the same person tells us the exact same thing on two different days, and we will feel widely different each time.
Additionally, as it usually happens, I had a really nice insight whilst conducting a therapy session this weekend. It got me thinking about the simple fact that growing up, I actually didn’t hear the word “should” that much. I was always a bright student, and the trouble I got up to was usually well hidden from authority figures. But there were ways in which people around me let me know what they expected of me, and what they thought I should do. These passive aggressive comments would come at specific times of my life where major life decisions tend to be required of people: when choosing subjects in secondary school which will determine which university courses you might pursue, when reaching the age of having boyfriends or girlfriends, when getting new jobs, when moving to new cities. All along, there were comments that made me know what people wanted of me.
The insight was actually about this: we spend so much time listening to “should’s” in their many forms, that we end up internalising them. After a while, we don’t even need our parents or friends telling us what they think we should do, we ourselves are running full steam ahead with those narratives. Ultimately, we are the ones telling ourselves that we should do this and that. We are the ones doing things and looking to our past for approval: “Is this okay?”, “This is what I should be doing, right?”, “I should marry right now, correct?”, “I should move in with her, right?”, “Should I take that job? Even though it doesn’t make me happy?”, “I should start having children!”, “I should do that degree”, “I should call him”, on and on, and on and on! We do this whilst looking to the past, because it was in the past that we first heard a version of these. It was somewhere in our past, in our backgrounds, in our cultures, that we first received the structure of what life should be like. We then witnessed people fulfilling that plan, or witnessed people talking about people fulfilling that plan, and we also witnessed people not fulfilling that plan and suffering some kind of consequence, and that’s how we learned that we, too, should follow that plan.
But as I’ve been discovering in the past 3 years in particular, and as I know many of you have also been discovering this in your own lives, following all these internal “should’s” and seeking to fulfil all these expectations and find all this validation, can often lead us to very painful moments. Moments of great confusion, of anger and rage, of disbelief, of betrayal, of panic, of doubt, of chaos. Once these moments happen in our lives and we realise that we need to find our own way around life’s many paths and crossroads, we also begin to realise that each one of us has our own path, and that this path will never be a straight line. This has been difficult for me to accept, to be very honest with you. To not have a template to follow is difficult because I’ve been taught to follow what’s already out there. But this hasn’t worked out for me in the way I expected it to, or the way I thought it should have happened. And it’s not that life events have been intensely challenging in themselves, but the fact that they have gone against all my expectations has been more difficult than I anticipated. The struggle for me, and for many people, relates to exactly this: the collapse or death of life as we thought it would be, and the birth of life as it is, and as it is becoming. It’s about letting go of what should be and being with what is and with what it will be. It’s literally about stepping into the unknown every day. There’s nothing easy about this.
So, going back to clients in therapy. After they get over the initial shock that the therapist is not there to tell them what to do with their lives, there is a moment when clients experience an opening in their way of being, a shift in perspective, a sense of power and excitement over the fact that they are the ones in control. And with some support, they soon realise, that even though they might be scared or anxious about something, that they can still do it, they can still get up and step into their personal unknowns every day and figure out how their own lives unfold. Like one of my favourite authors/activists, Glennon Doyle, says: “we can all do hard things.” We can all let go of the many “should´s” in our lives and decide to make our own schedules. We can all decide to be ourselves, to do life in our own terms, and I hope that we can all remember to be kind to ourselves and our processes along the way. We can all do hard things, if we do them with compassion and kindness.