Many of us carry around inside of our heads some uncompromising “shoulds” that limit our capacity to receive and thrive in life successfully. These “shoulds” act as taskmasters, judges, and critics of our every move, assessors that exact a tax that burdens us into infinity. They sit as a finger-pointing tribunal, disappointed, disapproving, and always on the edge of disgusted. They congratulate themselves for their patience in not simply throwing us out for never measuring up. We risk cow-towing to them as if God is speaking through them. We follow their edicts to death sometimes.
If we are successful in appearing to accomplish their “shoulds,” we lose everything our lives could have been—full of living, deep in love, and attractive to others’ hearts that look for freedom to thrive. The tribunal depends on our own toxic shame to control us—the false belief that my powerlessness and need as a human being defines me as inadequate and incompetent, if I need; that I am sickening and pathetic, if I feel; that I am unlovable and grotesque, if I cannot or do not perform to the level of demand. The “shoulds” say I am worthless for not being worthy, if I do not meet some standard that cannot actually be met. There is no top of the mountain; even more, if I have the illusion of arriving at the destination, they will show me a higher peak to climb.
I have seen professionals and parents, great accomplishers, and regular people like me, suffer the tribunal’s ignominy. In following the “shoulds,” we all are seduced into comparing our inner selves to another’s outer appearance and measuring ourselves as inferior or superior. Secret competition and the compulsion of chronic comparison become our daily lives.
Here are their three primary “shoulds” that I pray and work to continue to leave behind. Failure to perform them is freedom, if we accept the antidote for the poison they offer. Failure is the gift:
You should become independent. If you have to depend on someone to help you, too much (whatever that means), then you are a failure.
You should become realistic. Life is about survival of the fittest—which really translates into least affected or least touched or most manipulative. If you cannot become strong enough to be untouchable, then you are a hopeless whiner failure.
You should become powerful. You must become someone who profits by using their face to hide their heart’s experience of living this life. If your face exposes your heart’s struggles, you are a hypersensitive, dramatic, inept failure.
The great irony is that these three “shoulds” have their tentacles wrapped around what actually makes us most fulfilled and most accomplished—inside ourselves and outside ourselves in the relational world. By the relational world, I mean the world in which you and I have been given to live in fully and love in deeply, by being fully in relationship with ourselves, others and God. Those “shoulds” strangle our capacity to be known from within. They suffocate what actually makes us successful as human beings—the ability to live in relationship.
Next, I list the three antidotes I have seen and experienced that can neutralize the poison of the tribunal. When implemented, they can foundationally form experiences of wonderful fulfillment, blessed accomplishment, and humble, inspired achievement. The antidotes to the poison of the tribunal allow independence, reality, and power to take their proper place. The antidotes do require, however, that a person participate in a revolution, a revolution of becoming human.
Ask for help. Doing so allows a person to gain knowledge and experience. The need of others opens the door to become more able to help others.
Feel your feelings. Doing so reveals the truths of attachment to whatever matters to us. I will experience the celebration of joys and the grief of losses, and everything in between them, which is experiencing life. Those feelings express the hopes of my heart and the feelings that come with hopes deferred or hopes fulfilled.
Ask questions. Doing so expresses the acceptance of knowing that it takes a lifetime to learn how to live and love. We are all practicing living life for the first time: living in the questions, guidance, and, going forth, a way to live.
Children grasp these three freedoms and responsibilities from birth. Jesus brought a child to stand among a gathering of people after the disciples were found arguing over who of them would be the greatest. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-3). When we learn again how to ask for help, feel our feelings, and ask questions, that change opens the door into becoming who we were created to be instead of who the tribunal said we “should” be.
The irony of this freedom is that it allows us to become properly independent, realistic, and powerful because we make decisions and accept responsibility, recognize loss in life while pursuing our dreams, and have passion of heart that is a willingness to be in pain for something that matters more than pain. Our genuine neediness, then, allows us to become independent through dependence; realistic in truthfulness; and powerful by being fully present. Our failure in the “shoulds” becomes our freedom to succeed fully. Our failure becomes a gift.