Many of us harbour lists of punitive rules for ourselves. We’re not always aware of these insidious despots but are rather more aware of a pernicious sense of constantly failing in a world that vampirishly demands of us. This feedback loop makes for exhausted people plagued by a sense of inadequacy and resentment. It’s a horrible place to be. ‘Must’ and ‘should’ are stealth jailers.

I’m not talking about an actual inability to meet necessary demands of living – although to many the two might get easily conflated. It is probably impossible to find much water in a desert or to conjure up food in times of famine. However, to many of us, making choices that might disappoint others or deviate from the rigid scripts we set for ourselves might also feel like matters of life or death. 

We are usually therefore led to a life revolving around ideas such as how might I better adhere to all the shoulds and musts in my head – how can I be thinner, or make everyone like me, or have kids or a partner or a house or a certain job? We then seek a litany of prescriptions that promise a remedy. Usually, these prescriptions, not unlike many medicinal regimes, consist of heavy doses of self-discipline and forcing ourselves to swallow nasty tinctures.

We try to whip ourselves into shape and suppress what we desire or how we feel. And when this doesn’t work, because life is messy and often disappoints our expectations and perhaps we’re angry or don’t like the job we have or the kind of life we’re leading, we conclude that we have failed. We have failed to be a certain way and we should be that way because if we’re not, something is wrong with us, we’re not ok, others will judge, nothing will be ok. 

Fear of failure and disappointing others

I think the main thing that drives the self-criticism of the constant musts and shoulds is a fear of disappointing others or being forgotten by them. We incorrectly believe that we must stand out in life or stand out in the minds of others (but only within a rigid set of criteria) and worse, that others are probably constantly thinking about or judging us. 

We grossly overestimate others’ preoccupation with us and the importance of their potential disapproval to our relationships and wellbeing. So we end up working ourselves to death doing what we think will smooth things over or distinguish ourselves in others’ eyes, all the while growing more and more exhausted, angry and alienated from ourselves. Does it ever work, really? No. Maybe for a brief moment every now and again but the satisfaction of one trophy and plaudit doesn’t last. We collapse on the sofa of life feeling tired and a little bit empty. Often we get symptoms, like panic or anxiety or a feeling like we’re wading through treacle and we just can’t anymore.  

Freeing ourselves

I think that a more liberating line of questioning goes something like the playground retort: Says who? When we start asking this question, we begin to deconstruct the restrictive pressure- cookers we put ourselves into.  

Should according to whom? Must according to whom? Who gets to decide on these things? When we start to interrogate these fortress-like expectations we might begin to realise that there are many paths to a meaningful, connected life. 

We might also begin to realise that there is no such thing as a right way and a wrong way. That we make the best decision we can at the time, and that we have choices and decision-making capability after that decision…and after that decision…and that we can keep creatively shaping our lives. 

All is not lost over one decision, or making a choice that bucks the so-called normal. In fact, we might begin to realise that there is enough of us inside ourselves to survive relationships that might come and go, grow closer or further apart and that the prison of others’ approval is really of our own making. That perhaps we were not ill or deviant in the first place and had no need for the medicine of self-criticism. 

Now of course, this is a hard project. It’s terrifying for those of us who believe that a change of direction might equate to catastrophic failure. We could begin to ask what failure means? And then again resort to the playground and ask: So what? As adults we have resources that as children we could never access. We can, more or less, choose. 

And where we can’t, where we feel stuck, maybe we need to ask how we all colluded in constructing a version of adult life that was so oppressive. Perhaps we need to think of some different versions. Where we can breathe. Where we can rest. Where we can play.