Stress is often a result of the tension between what is and what you believe should be. It’s called the “tyranny of the shoulds,” and it dictates the way we think, act, and feel.
These “should” beliefs—referred to as Icebergs Beliefs in meQuilibrium—exist for a reason: They’ve served you in the past by helping you shape your concept of how the world works and how you should behave in it. They come in three flavors—achievement, social, and control—and cover pretty much all aspects of your life. At the core of Iceberg Beliefs are black-and-white standards that, in our often-gray world, can leave you feeling disappointed or stressed.
The science tells us, however, that we have the power to change the way we think—and leave those shackling “shoulds” behind. Here are three ways to say goodbye to unrealistic expectations and shut the door on those “shoulds” for good.
Make Peace with Your Ideal Self
Achievement Icebergs are about your success at school, at work, and within your community. At the root of your Achievement Icebergs is a judgment about how you should perform. When you think you should be a certain way, you are abiding by a code of your ideal self vs. actual self. This theory, coined by psychologist Karen Horney, states that you have a “real self” (who you actually are) and an “ideal self” (who you strive to be). While it’s important to actualize your potential, it’s also important to recognize when this “ideal self” is holding you to too high a standard that hurts your self-worth.
When shaping your ideal self, do it with love and kindness by setting realistic standards. Would your ideal self never miss a deadline at work? Or would you hardly ever miss a deadline, and, if you did, handle it with integrity and accountability? Accept that there’s room to grow without judging where you’re at right now. Rigid expectations set you up to fail, whereas flexible yet challenging standards help you strive towards growth.
Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Your Social Icebergs encompass the world of relationships—with partners, children, family, friends, and beyond. If you believe that everyone should always think the best of you, it’s hard to not be constantly striving for better. For example: You should
have a bigger house or the latest gadget. You should be more talented like your friend or more outgoing like your coworker. When this starts to inhibit you, rather than inspire, you miss the unique contributions, attributes, skills, and perspective that only you have to offer. The next time you feel a tug from someone else’s display of progress, achievement, or success, take a minute to check in with yourself and your own goals. Is this what you want? If so, it’s a good push and reminder to keep working towards it. If not, move on.
Gratitude is a great way to combat self-comparison. It’s linked to increased happiness, improved health, and even better relationships. So take a break from your “shoulds” and make a daily list of three things you already have and are grateful for. Remember: You aren’t entitled to anything—and neither is anyone else. You are fortunate to have what you have, and deserve to reap the benefits from feeling that gratitude.
Strive for More Perspective and Forgiveness
Your Control Icebergs stem from a desire to feel safe and secure in an unpredictable world and can lead to a desire to control others’ behavior: Your friend should always be on time, or your partner should always remember to wash the dishes.
The next time someone violates one of your “shoulds,” run through a checklist in your head. What are you expecting them to do? Why do you feel strongly about it? If it’s worthy, how can you make sure it is clearly communicated? If it’s not worthy, can you reframe it? Try replacing it with a mantra instead, such as “Everyone has a different way of doing things. Neither theirs nor mine is better.” When you can accept that everyone is coming from a different place, it becomes easier to move towards a productive solution.
The more you can be at peace with the idea that there is no predetermined way things “should” work out, the more you can make peace with your past and feelings of uncertainty about the future. Use your power to stay grounded in what is rather than what should be.
Elior Moskowitz is the Content Coordinator at meQuilibrium. A frequent Cup of Calm contributor, she also writes for various major business journals and lifestyle publications. Elior holds a B.A. in Psychology and English, with special training in both positive psychology and mental health counseling.