“Should” is a word that comes up a lot in the health world. We’re told that there are things we should do to be healthy, like exercise, eat well, get lots of sleep, and manage stress. Then, there’s all the shouldn’ts like smoking, alcohol, sugar, etc.
We’re told that we must harness our willpower in order to follow these guidelines, and yet, as you’ve probably noticed, willpower eventually runs dry.
Why is that? Why don’t we just do what we think we should? The answer to this is complex, but I think that it lies partly in the power of “should.” Should does not feel good. Should is not the same as “because I want to.” Should and shouldn’t are words that inspire guilt. Yet we don’t reject them, because we believe that if we feel guilty enough we’ll be motivated to correct our actions.
Sometimes we are motivated by guilt, but the motivation is temporary, and when it wears off and we go back to our old ways, we end up feeling worse than ever.
When people first find out that I’m a health coach, they often launch into a story about how “bad” they are and how they wish they could motivate themselves to do certain things they believe are healthy. I usually surprise them by suggesting that unless they actually want to do those things, they’d probably be best off just letting themselves off the hook.
Of course, I know that I am only planting a seed of thought when I share my perspective. Likely, the person I am talking to is thinking, “Ok, but then how will I become more healthy if I let myself off the hook?” My answer is this: Authentic pursuit of health requires getting to know yourself better through gentle experimentation.
What does that mean? What does it look like? Everyone’s path is different, but I’ll give you an example. Say you want to exercise more, but you just can’t seem to make it happen. You could start by asking yourself, “What kind of movement do I enjoy?” Maybe you remember that you used to love tap dancing, so you find a local tap class and sign up. Then you check in with yourself to see if it’s working for you. If so, you continue on, if not, you quit (guilt free!) and think of something else to try.
Remember: The point is not to figure out what works for you immediately and stick with it forever. If something doesn’t go according to your expectations (like if you don’t like the tap class instructor or the class is at a bad time for you) don’t throw your hands up and call the experiment a failure! Every time things don’t go the way you planned is an opportunity to learn something about yourself, and to use this knowledge to make better decisions in the future.
You can leave your tap class or failed diet or last attempt at quitting smoking and say to yourself, “I suck. I can’t do this.” OR you can say, “That didn’t work out. I’ll try to figure out why and think about what I want to try next.” If you are harsh with yourself, you will rob yourself of any motivation to try again and try differently. If you treat yourself gently, and with compassion, whatever happened is just part of your journey, and you are free to keep growing. Remember: you deserve the same kindness you would bestow on any of your loved ones. Take a break from “should.”