Expectations: A Severe Case of the 'Shoulds'


I should be married and have kids by now
I should own a house by now
I should go for a run
I should be earning more money
I should be more successful
I should be doing something productive
I should not be eating this chocolate bar

Sound familiar? If so, you might have a severe case of the 'shoulds', a long list of expectations you constantly put pressure on yourself to achieve. Why do we beat ourselves up this way?

I often think that if there's a 'should' in your sentence, we don't really want to be doing it. The word suggests that we feel someone else is expecting it of us but that we ourselves aren't actually that bothered about whether we do it or not. For example, I love chocolate. Of course I want to eat it and my god, does it taste good when I do! But I ruin the experience by thinking "I really shouldn't be eating this. People say it's bad for you. I'll get fat if I do." I also enjoy relaxing but find it hard to give myself permission to. I hear myself saying, "You should go for a run instead. You should do some work. You should clean the flat." So, who the hell is this bossy person? Is it the voice of society, perhaps my ambitious husband, or maybe an echo of my teachers from school? It's an external pressure that can ruin your day-to-day enjoyment of things you want and like to do. Of course, sometimes we have to force ourselves to get our butts in gear (I know running makes me happier, for example) but sometimes it's worth giving ourselves permission to be OK doing what we want to do and not what we think we should be doing according to some external pressure and expectation.

I work with a number of clients who feel they should be doing better at work or that they really should be in a relationship by now. They're reaching the age of 30 and they're nowhere near where they thought they should be by that age. The expectations of what we think we should achieve by 30 are set at a young age, based on the life trajectories of our parents' generation who generally were settled down, married, had kids, a house and secure job well before then. This is the life we feel we should have, that others expect us to have; but for some reason, we're not quite there yet. But that's OK! The aspirations of a generation change over time. These days we'd rather travel more, experience the city/life as a single person, change career and do something more fun and interesting. It seems an endless battle between what we think we should be doing and what we actually want to do.

A lot of the time, this anxiety stems from worrying too much about what people will think if we don't do what's expected of us:

"My parents will be disappointed/think there's something wrong with me if I stay single."
"They'll think I'm mad if I quit my perfectly respectable and stable job to do something completely different."
"My partner/friends will judge me if I don't earn as much as them."
"People will think I'm a failure if I don't work hard and be a success."

So, how on earth can we manage these huge external expectations, which we put upon ourselves to achieve?

1. Listen to your language

If you hear yourself saying I 'should', ask yourself if you actually want to or not. Simple, really. Can you think of a reason why you want to? Will you be annoyed with yourself if you don't?

2. Be clear on your reasons

Are you happy with your current life trajectory? If so, stick with it. Come up with a rehearsed response to people who don't understand your life choices. For example, when they ask, "Why are you still single?", have your response to hand: "I want to meet someone who is right for me and I haven't met anyone like that just yet. I'm really happy being single in the meantime though; it's great fun actually. You don't need to worry about me." Another example: "Why would you quit your perfectly good, respectable job?" You could say, "Because it's making me unhappy and I want to do something I thrive in and that I am more passionate about. That's really important to me."

3. Set your own life goals

Take time to decide what you want out of life, not what you think you should want, that others want for you or ones that are expected of you. Carve out a life that suits you and only you. What's important to you? What do you value? When you're on your death-bed, how do you want to feel when you look back at your life? What do you want your legacy to be? Believe in this vision; make it one you really want for yourself, not because you think it will make others happy.

4. Give yourself permission

I'm starting to learn to give myself permission to enjoy life as it is. It's OK if I don't go for a run; it's OK if I don't earn as much as other people I know; it's OK for me just to be me.

Remember, if someone has an issue with your life decisions, it usually says more about them and their own insecurities, unhappiness and fears than it does about the way you're choosing to live your life.

So, go enjoy your life; that's what you should do.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.