I’ve never been one to fit precisely into the molds that have been made for me by people who don’t even know me personally. Or even by the people who do. But it’s safe to say that I’ve always tried to. Something in me wants to fit in and never disappoint. But another part of me wants to do what’s uniquely right for me and go my own way. It’s like a constant tug-of-war and sometimes I wish it was easier for my brain to just… ya know, cooperate.
I’m jealous of the people who don’t question or overthink or stop to think, “Wait, is this really right for me or am I just going along with what I’ve been taught?” That would make my life about 1,3,329 times easier. But instead, like many others, I’ve been “cursed” with a skeptical, doubting, overthinking, guilt-prone, people-pleasing brain that is anything but “simple.”
Me Story of Me and the Many “Shoulds”
The shoulds in my life eat me alive. And there are so many of them. In fact, I recently recited off my long list of shoulds to a therapist.
I should be finishing college right now.
I should have a “real” career and not spend my days doing something I love (and that I earn the same amount of money from) (aka: blogging).
I should believe and want everything I’ve been taught to believe and want.
I should be more outgoing and spend less time alone.
I should say “yes” whenever I’m asked to do something because declining is rude.
I should only stick to writing about things on my blog that those closest to me will agree with- things that aren’t going to ruffle their feathers.
I should be wanting to start a family soon. (Or at least doing it, even if I don’t want to. Otherwise, I’m “selfish.”)
I should post more pictures of myself on Instagram because that’s what bloggers do.
She stopped me when I wasn’t even halfway through with the long list of should’s swimming around in my brain and said, “Wait, who’s saying you should do these things?”
I replied, “Well, my family, society, the community I grew up in, the people all around me, other bloggers, friends… ”
She stopped me again and said, “But what do YOU want?”
(I’m sorry but I couldn’t NOT include that scene 😅)
What Do I Want?
I’d actually never been asked that. Even though my mom definitely taught me that I shouldn’t be a people-pleaser, I’d still gotten the impression from everyone around me that I should spend my life putting others first, doing what I’d been taught to do my whole life, and always asking God what I should do, instead of deciding what I wanted to do. I’d honestly never really stopped to think about what I wanted. Or even figured out how to make my own decisions.
So, I replied with something along the lines of, “Well, that doesn’t matter. It’s selfish to think about what I want when there are so many people counting on me to do their version of the right thing.”
I think she knew right about then (actually, most likely when I was naming off my “shoulds”) that there was A LOT we were going to have to work through. The unhealthy thought processes that had been instilled in me my entire life needed to be unpacked and redirected. I had to realize that I’ve been given a brain in order to use it. I’m allowed to decide what I want in this life based on my own unique personality traits, desires, and visions for the future. All of which are things only I can know and understand for myself- after a whole lot of necessary self-reflection.
I realized something important. It’s easier (at first) to go along with what everyone else is doing or what I’m told to do. It doesn’t require a whole lot of thinking, but in the end, it had cost me my peace, self-respect, and sanity.
I also realized that the people who have been trying to force me into these boxes are limiting me, and I’ve been allowing it to happen. I’ve been allowing other people to dictate what I think, believe, want, and do, instead of pausing to consider, “Hey, what do I really think and what do I really want?”
My people-pleasing way of thinking had led to years of guilt, lack of confidence in my own abilities, and a whole lot of self-hatred for not being true to myself.
My self-identity had been established by other people and when I didn’t live up to that identity, I felt like a failure. Just one example is of when I stopped to even consider that perhaps I shouldn’t finish college (because what I want to do doesn’t even require a college diploma) thoughts from other people entered my brain telling me that people who don’t graduate are dumb quitters who aren’t going to get anywhere in life.
When in reality, that isn’t the case (or you wouldn’t be staring at your iPhone right now #stevejobs). Ultimately, I’d let other people’s expectations of what I should do make it almost impossible for me to consider what’s best for me- the unique individual that I am.
I find it odd that we highly regard people who go against the grain and think for themselves (like Katniss from Hunger Games or any other main character in a dystopian novel/movie), yet when someone actually does it in real life, we shame them. We make them feel like they’re a terrible person for deciding to do something different than the “status quo.”
We’re Too Complex to Be Put Into Boxes
The true beauty of being human is that we are too complex and dynamic to be put into boxes or told what to do based on our gender or anything else. For example, I know plenty of men who are far more nurturing and patient than their wives. Their children would probably be much better off staying home with their more nurturing dad or going to daycare than being yelled at all day by their mom.
Yet, because women are often put into boxes and told it’s their divine role or responsibility to stay at home with the kids, some kids are actually at odds. It’s funny how often we’re told what we should be or do based off of one part of ourselves, when we’re so much more dynamic and complicated than that.
When we don’t think for ourselves, we let all sorts of beliefs limit us and mold us into people we’re not always meant to be. When we let other people define our identity, we miss out on finding out who we truly are- which takes a lot of hard work and isn’t as simple as following along with the crowd, but in the end is so worth it.
Imagine if someone had told Mother Theresa that she should be a stay-at-home mom (or even just mom, in general) instead of starting organizations that help the poor and needy. If she’d listened to them, she wouldn’t have been able to discover her true calling in life or make the large and important impact she’s made.
Imagine if someone had told Malala Yousafzai that she couldn’t get an education because she’s a girl. Oh wait, people did tell her that (and shot her when she didn’t conform). But she didn’t listen. And now she’s played an important role in helping woman in third-world countries gain an education.
There’s no one way to be a good human, and thank goodness for that. Or we’d all be the same. And it would be boring. And people wouldn’t be helping others in the countless different ways we need people to be helping. My point is that there are a million and one different ways to live this crazy life and not one of them should be determined by someone else.
We Can’t Control Other People
Unfortunately, you can’t stop other people from adding to your list of shoulds or trying to make you conform to their standards. It’s in our nature to try to change people and shape them into the versions of themselves we think they should be.
Even though those unhealthy expectations always lead to resentment (and somehow people don’t realize this!), people aren’t going to stop expecting you to be a certain way and then shaming you when you don’t live up to their expectations. Sadly, most people aren’t taught how to have true empathy or understanding. They’re just taught that people should be a certain way and if they aren’t that way, they need to change.
So, it’s incredibly important to remember that it’s NOT selfish to want something different. It’s NOT selfish to believe something different. But it IS selfish to expect others to think and behave exactly the way you think and behave.
So from one people-pleaser to another (I’m assuming you’re a people pleaser if you got this far in the post), I hope you have the courage to say goodbye to other people’s “shoulds” for you. I’m not a therapist (I realized I’m too opinionated and introverted to be happy doing that), but I do know you’re worthy and smart and capable of deciding who YOU want to become.
If you’ve been taught who you should be your entire life, you’ll probably need a real therapist to unpack all your lifetime supply of unhealthy thoughts. But for now, remember that you’re allowed to say, “no.” And there’s nothing wrong with being different, going against the grain, and actually taking the time to figure out what’s best for YOU.