Shushing the Shoulds: Moving from Self Judgement to Self Compassion
People are often tied down by what I like to refer to in therapy as “the Shoulds” - the strict rules and unrealistic expectations we form for ourselves, others, and the world around us. Often, we see the expectations we put on ourselves as a way to continue to improve and grow into the person we want to become. We think we should start eating healthier, we should be more outgoing in our social groups, we should be checking more things off of our to-do lists. And while these are all good things that can be helpful in working to become the version of ourselves we want to be, what happens when we fall short of these expectations we set? Usually, what I’ve learned, is that it becomes a key opportunity for some self judgement to set in. And the judgement we place on ourselves can be very harmful, because we tend to keep it and hold it internally, seeing it as a reflection of who we are at the core.
I make it a point to help my clients become more aware of the role that the Shoulds play in their life. I recommend making it a point throughout the day or the week to begin to notice how often you call yourself out for what you should or should not be doing. Write it down! And then think about the expectations you have for yourself that are tied to the Shoulds. Maybe you want to be physically healthier, so you should be eating better and should be working out more. But the judgement that can creep in when you miss a day at the gym or choose a nice, juicy burger you’ve been craving for dinner can do more harm than good. It can also be beneficial to think about how sometimes failing to meet these expectations can impact how you think about yourself. Sometimes, this self judgement can leave us feeling like we aren’t worth the life we want for ourselves.
After pointing out the Shoulds to my clients, and working with them to help them better understand the impact that the Shoulds can have on their lives, their decisions, and their self image, we work to replace that self judgement with self compassion.
When we think back to a time in our childhood when we made a mistake or didn’t live up to expectations, we were hopefully met with compassion and understanding from our caregivers. They hopefully did not judge us for messing up or falling short. So how can we learn to offer the inner child that still exists in us today the same compassion that we were offered by our caregivers?
One way may be to become more mindful of when those judgmental thoughts come up for us. The beauty of mindfulness as a whole is the non judgmental component it offers. In talking with clients about practicing mindfulness, I’ve learned that it can be intimidating for those who assume that mindfulness is just another word for meditation. But mindfulness is really a chance for us to connect with the present moment. And, perhaps even more beneficial, it’s an opportunity for us to actively choose to stop judging our thoughts and ourselves, if only for a few minutes at a time.
For those starting out with mindfulness, I’d suggest taking just a couple of minutes out of your day. You can set a timer and get comfy on your favorite spot on the couch. Take a deep inhale and exhale. Focus on your breathing, and begin to become aware of the thoughts floating through your mind. Often, we judge ourselves for the thoughts we are having - deeming them inappropriate, silly, or wrong. If this happens, rather than judging yourself for having them, allow yourself to simply acknowledge these thoughts for existing in your mind. Allow yourself to have the thought, whatever it may be. This is a good step in working to remove some of the self-judgement we often place on ourselves based on our expectations of how things should be. We replace this with practicing compassion and forgiveness, and by releasing our expectations. Acknowledge the thoughts and say to yourself, “I’m going to try my best to be present for what comes. I am trying my best”.
Practicing mindfulness can bring awareness to the self judgements that exist beneath the surface. In doing so, we can begin to better understand the impact that these self judgements can have on our lives. And through practice, we can work to acknowledge that even when we fail to meet the expectations and rules we set for ourselves, we are trying our best and are always deserving of self compassion, acceptance and love.
The Shoulds can often convince us that we aren’t doing enough, that we aren’t good enough. But beginning to work towards being mindful of the role the Shoulds play in your life and in your relationship with yourself can help you move from a place of self judgement towards self acceptance and compassion.