There are 3 little words that can really make you miserable. Yet we use them all the time, often to beat ourselves up.
They are should, must and ought.
I bet you sometimes find yourself thinking or saying something like:
• I should go to the gym more often.
• I must sort out my [whatever task you keep putting off].
• I ought to be more organised.
These phrases make us miserable because they all imply that you’re not on top of things, that you’re failing or in some way not quite up to scratch.
So, they start to niggle at you and then you get to thinking that there are so many things not being done. Other people get them done and they’re slim or successful or very efficient. People would talk if they knew you don’t go to the gym, always put things off and are simply not organised.
Then it escalates. You start believing that you know what other people think and do. You compare yourself to these mythical, perfect people and yes, you’re not as good as they are. And you beat yourself up for not being as good as these paragons of virtue.
So what’s going on?
On the face of it, it’s simple: if you know what you want to do go and do it. But reality is never that simple. So what gets in the way? Life and all its hassles and joys of course, but there is something more profound that can cause us to put things off.
We all think that that there’s just one version of ourselves, but that’s not true.
We have many selves and they’re not always that helpful!
For a start there’s the version of you that your family knows, which may well be different from the you your colleagues are familiar with. And what about the you that your friends hang out with? Or the you that gets on with some neighbours but can’t be doing with others?
And what about all the versions of you that only you know. For example, the diligent sensible you with a strong sense of duty. The fun-loving, slightly irresponsible you that wants to pack it all in and go travelling. The creative you that likes problem solving or painting. The lazy you that likes to veg out in front of the telly and binge watch something while eating pizza and chocolate and drinking beer. The healthy you that does yoga, eats the right foods and meditates at least twice a day….
They all co-exist. You can enjoy being a slob one day and super healthy the next. All of these selves are perfectly valid versions of you in the right situation. The trouble is that they sometimes don’t show up when you want them to.
You manage it of course, you’re an adult. You make yourself go to work or honour your commitments even when you don’t want to. You can be sensible and build an exercise routine into your week so you stay fit and healthy. You have some sort of plan and schedule so things don’t go too far off the rails. You know you can relax a bit at weekends. But even though most of us are fairly good at managing ourselves at least some of the time, we can still get stuck. And the musts, oughts and shoulds kick in again.
Your different selves and your innate wisdom
When I’m working on stuckness and ‘oughtism’ with my clients I like to really get into what’s going wrong for them.
One of my favourite tools is Warriors, Settlers and Nomads which allows us to use our ancient, innate wisdom to problem solve.
The idea is that we inherit psychological traits from our parents, grandparents and ancestors lost in the mists of time and these traits affect our behaviour and choices today. From our Warrior ancestors we get the positive traits of problem solving, goal-orientation, planning and assertiveness. Our Settler ancestors passed on their skills in team work as well as being easy going and good natured. Creativity, flexibility and a sense of fun come from our Nomad ancestors.
If you don’t buy evolutionary psychology or ancestral memory it works just as well if you think of your assertive self, your flexible self and your creative self.
Your assertive Warrior self would say go to the gym, sort it out, organise yourself. Take action! Or at least come up with a plan.
Your flexible Settler self may dither about what to do when and worry about who you’re letting down by not going to the gym, sorting things out or being more organised.
Your creative Nomad self will think the gym’s boring, getting organised is deadly dull and planning doesn’t leave room for any spontaneity so go and do something you just feel like doing instead. Preferably with wine and/or chocolate (or maybe that’s just mine!).
Those three selves bring a distinct view of the problem and you can already see the conflicts arising. Do something, get on with it versus what should I do? versus make it interesting and fun.
It’s no wonder we sometimes get stuck!
Here’s what to do…
A good approach when you’re stuck is to work out which self doesn’t want to do the thing you’re stuck on.
Just sit quietly for a moment, close your eyes and think about each of them in turn. You’ll soon spot which one is objecting.
There are some clues:
If you don’t see the point or understand the benefit of a proposed action it’s likely to be your assertive Warrior self that’s throwing up some obstacles. It doesn’t get the reason why you want to do something and so is blocking it. Explore what the problem really is – they might have a better idea or be able to come up with a more suitable plan of action. They may even help you let go of an idea that looks good superficially but isn’t actually that helpful.
If you’re worried about other people or feeling that you’re being selfish or coming on too strong in some way, it’s likely to be your flexible Settler self that isn’t happy. Explore who that self wants to keep happy and why. Is it for a good reason? For example, you may want to make a change that someone else would object to for their own selfish reasons and that is getting in your way. Focus on how you can manage the other people who may be affected by your decision and get them onside.
When you’re stuck because everything seems dull and boring, then your creative Nomad self is likely to blocking the idea. What can you do to make it more interesting? How can you solve the problem in an innovative or creative way. Nomads often loathe planning and organising but using the latest app or a lovely journal can make it much more palatable for them. Throw in a reward or turn it into a game and your creative Nomad self will seldom object.
If you can find a way for your assertive Warrior self, your flexible Settler self and your creative Nomad self to agree on a course of action you’re far more likely to be successful.
So when you’re lost in the musts, oughts and shoulds and can’t see a way through go inward. Don’t blame the weather, the economy, someone on your team, your customers or your suppliers. The truth is that there’s likely to be at least one of your selves holding you back. Find out which one and you’ll be able to move forward.
Get in touch to find out how I can help you find your own Warrior, Settler and Nomad. Put your assertive Warrior in charge and do it now!
Bachkirova, T. 2011. Developmental Coaching working with the self Open University Press: Maidenhead
Watts, T. 2000. Warriors, Settlers and Nomads: discovering who we are and who we can be Crown House Publishing Limited: Camarthen.