The word “should” has become somewhat of a “bad word” in the counseling community. We often hear the playful warning to be careful not to “should all over yourself.” The push here is to let go of what you think you should do, in exchange for doing what you want: a practice that has allowed many to reduce shame and dissatisfaction and find a more meaningful path for themselves.
But the word “should” pops up in other nasty ways, outside of our “to do” lists and judgments around our motivation and priorities. In the same way we apply judgment and pressure to our actions, we can apply it to something we have even less immediate control over: our emotions.
“I know I shouldn’t feel this way.”
That “should” usually creeps in when we don’t like what we’re feeling, for one of many reasons—maybe we have been taught that certain feelings are ok, and others aren’t. Lessons from family and culture, past experiences and painful memories can all lead to the “should” settling in around our feelings. “Should” can further creep in when we compare our situation to that of other people, and on some imaginary hierarchy of suffering, we place our experience below someone else’s, which makes our problem seem unworthy:
- “My lack of ‘me time’ is nothing compared to the suffering in Syria: I shouldn’t feel this way.”
- “I feel annoyed with my partner, but at least I have a partner. I shouldn’t feel this way.”
- “My kids are driving me crazy, but that’s nothing compared to the pain of people who have lost a child. I shouldn’t feel this way.”
When our problems seem smaller than what we see above us in our imaginary hierarchy, somehow we begin to believe that our feelings don’t matter and don’t count. And when “should” takes a seat next to those feelings, telling us what we should and should not be feeling, we swap that pain for shame, which as Carl Jung puts it, “is a soul eating emotion.” It freezes us, and robs us of the experience of truly feeling and learning from our emotions. In her book Rising Strong, Brown calls this phenomenon “comparative suffering.” She states, referring to the natural and harmful tendency we have to measure ourselves against others: “Even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. . .”
Compassion for Ourselves and Our Emotions
Is there a way to withhold judgment while both acknowledging our feelings as well as the feelings and experiences of others? Can we fully experience the richness of life without running to a place of shame because our problems do not seem big enough, or we are ashamed of the feelings that arise from our problems? Is there enough space for everyone to be allowed to feel their pain? Brown answers this for us:
“Empathy is not finite, and compassion is not a pizza with eight slices. When you practice empathy and compassion with someone [or with yourself], there is not less of these qualities to go around. There’s more. Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor [or from yourself]…”
If we can develop compassion for ourselves and the pain we feel, we can open a door that will lead to a new understanding of our suffering. In turn, as we let go of our emotional measuring stick, our compassion and empathy for ourselves and for others will increase. We will feel kinder to ourselves, and more open to others, and our “shoulds” will take a back seat, along with the shame. Because, as Brown adds, “Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.”