Should Be Syndrome

should be

In both work and social spheres I regularly encounter people who spend much of their time trying to reconcile life to their expectations. Often you find that their expectations are based on a long list of should be scenarios. For example:

  • By 21 I should have my university degree.
  • By 25 I should be making an X amount of money.
  • I’m smarter/prettier than her. No way should she be picked over me.
  • People say it’s very difficult to marry when you’re older, so I should be married before I turn thirty.
  • My friend summited Mount Kilimanjaro in six days, so I should take no longer than that.
  • It took Facebook eight years since inception to list on a public stock exchange, so my company should aim for something similar.

Many are always assessing what their lives should be like. Measuring yourself against should be scenarios like the ones above will inevitably place undue pressure on you. The more “should be’s” you live with, the less happy you’re likely to be. Imperceptibly this mindset took root in me during my early twenties, until I realized how generalized and inappropriate the should be scenarios I held were. I expected immense wealth and status by the time I turned twenty five, with no idea of how I would do it or any appreciation of the sacrifices that were required.

Before you feel like you aren’t where you should be in life, I urge you to consider the following:

What is “Ideal” Based On?

Look closely at what your goals are based on. How did you determine what an ideal life is? Often we form a picture of the way our lives should be by observing peers and absorbing what the media portrays to us. When I think carefully, it was peer pressure and a relentless exposure to consumer culture on television and the Internet that caused me to focus so much on material enrichment.

Your standards and ideals should be based on your character, values and interests, rather than society’s prescription. Marrying, owning a double storey home with a picked fence, driving two cars and having two kids is a stereotyped ideal that many still pursue, for instance. Yet if you are a spontaneous minded soloist this scenario would probably make you unhappy. A simple apartment, a cat and a well developed public transport system could be all you require to be content.

The ideal life is a matter of opinion and interpretation. It is not a one size fits all package. Rather it is something you have to identify by yourself without undue influence from peers and societal norms.

Focus on what’s Eternal

Eternal values like love, truth, peace of mind and control over your time form the foundation of happiness. When you shed all pretences of the way life should be, you will see that you require just a few simple things to make it enjoyable. Grow and express life’s eternal values rather than pursuing generic ideals. When you do this you may find that your life is actually fulfilled as it is, negating the need to compare your present situation to some hypothetical ideal.

As a sprinkling over this foundation of eternal values will be some worthwhile goals and pursuits. One must carefully select what they pursue in life. Many times achieving what you think will transform your life in theory will only make you marginally happier in reality. That exceedingly expensive watch you have been eyeing for years may draw admiration from acquaintances and strangers, but it will not mend a strained relationship you may have with your partner. The sheen tends to wear off quickly for acquisitions that are materialistic or status-related in nature.

When I started paying close attention to the activities that genuinely made me happy, a short list comprising of things that were either cheap or free formed — things like reading novels with my wife, swimming and cycling. Sure, money and recognition are nice extras that I enjoy working for, but it has sunk in for me that I already have most of what I need to call my life ideal. Goals to me are nice to have extras, not reasons to be discontent.

Stop Agonizing and get Going

Make no mistake, pursuits and goals that are well thought out provide adventure and purpose to your life. By no means are you being asked to drop all ambition and just accept things as they are. What you are being asked to do though is to ensure that your desires and ideals are self-determined, and that they inspire you to act rather than induce feelings of inadequacy.

People spend too much time bemoaning what’s wrong or missing in their lives instead of rectifying it. Imagine agonizing for hours over an unsightly crack in your lounge wall. It would seem silly to spend so much time remaining bitter about the crack when it would take no more than two hours to paint the wall. Yet this is what we spend much of our waking lives doing when certain aspects of our lives are less than ideal. People spend time indulging despair instead of getting out and doing what’s needed to get closer to the situation they want. That great something you want is not as far off as you think it is if you could eliminate procrastination and diligently apply yourself.

Your Time Will Come

There is no need to feel like you’re behind where you should be in life. Comparing yourself to people you consider to be peers is not always wise, because as much as we identify ourselves with certain groups, we are also each here to have unique experiences and insights. My professional career has veered significantly from the friends I studied with at university, so it’s pointless to compare myself to them. Whoever has more money, status or satisfaction between us is irrelevant because we all have different circumstances and objectives.

We come of age at different times in different aspects of life. So let go off what life should be like, pick a few worthwhile pursuits and apply yourself consistently. When you do this, any feelings of regret and inadequacy you have will be replaced by grace and contentment.

Photo by Arkangel

17 thoughts on “Should Be Syndrome”

  1. Wow, this is a wonderful post Lishen! I wonder how much happier we be if the word “should” had never been invented?

    Anyway, I know this is something that I need to work on so thanks for the reminder! I’ll definitely be checking out your book…

    1. Ed – I totally had that thought the other day. I was wondering what our world would be like if the word “should” just didn’t exist. It’s a concept that is entirely unnecessary and only brings unrest and dissatisfaction to the way things are.

  2. I’ve been dealing with “should” ideas for the past few months. I had thought that I “should” appreciate my job and “should” stay where I am regardless of whether I’m happy or not. What I’ve finally realized is that what’s good for other’s isn’t necessarily good for me and I’ve got to embrace my own change
    I’ve been trying to fit into my own preconceived mold based on how I “should” live when I compare myself to others. I’m now moving past that mindset and seeing that we each have to follow our own path, regardless of whether others think we “should”.
    Great post! It really makes you think about where you are and where you really want to be.

  3. Great thoughts, Lishen. It reminded me of the cliche (which is true): Don’t compare you insides to others’ outsides. We need each discover our own path and follow it. Thanks.

  4. Talk about the universe bringing you that which you seek. This article has come at a time where I am questioning why the same things that matters to other like creating drama around issues and events in the news are not illiciting the same response from me. Why not bragging about the material things i have acquired are not top priority for me baffles some in my life. Why looking for substance in my relationships are important and moving away from the ones without substance and are very surface level orientated. I realise that through facing some challenges in my life over the last 4 years. I have managed to get This is the essence of life, the essence of being. The essence of not needing so much to feel whole but rather realising that I am whole…

  5. People agonize over what they should be and often forget what they are. Measuring our self worth against what we believe to be true about someone else is delusional. Isn’t it possible that they might envy what we have?

  6. Thank you! This has really allowed me to forgive myself for not being and having what I thought I should. I have learned a new way!

  7. This post is so true. You need to forget about timing because if you are true to yourself, the timing is always right.

    As I have often heard, ‘What others think of me is none of my business!” This helps stopping us from comparing our self to others.

    I had a good friend tell me when I though about if my decision was right or not. She said:” All decisions are the right decisions if you always learn from them.”

    Just chose to be your eternal self and the universe will deliver what you need.


  8. It takes a strong resolve and discipline not to lift your head up sometimes and wish things were different. However, for most of the time I accept what’s happening, knowing that moaning and groaning will not correct the inequities or bring back the missed opportunities. I am proud of myself for being able to dismiss the temptation of comparing and regretting for most things but sometimes, reality hits. Especially when you wonder where you will get the money for basic sustenance, never mind the immersive goals.

  9. Hi Lishen,

    This is a fantastic post! What you have said in this post is very true. I used to compare myself with my peers and it only made me unhappy at the end of the day.

    After associating with many successful people and reading a lot of books, I have learnt to accept myself for who I am. I believed that everyone is unique and we all have our challenges to overcome in life. That explains why my success may come at a later time compared to others.

    However, as long as we continue to move forward in faith, the dots will sometime get connected when we look back several years down the road when we have arrived at where we want to be.


  10. Hi Lishen

    Well, I’ve given away my car, I use the cheapest phone on the planet and swapped a huge mortgage for a small rent. I wish I could tell you and everyone else that throwing out all the major “shoulds” in my life made me completely happy but it would make me the biggest liar in Liar Town. Perhaps I’ve chucked out all the wrong stuff, or perhaps I’m just prone to bouts of grumpiness which are unrelated to aspirations and desires.
    Don’t we all have strong drives for success and happiness? Do you think it just depends upon how we measure it?
    Thanks for the article, it’s certainly made me think.

  11. I very much enjoyed this article. My “should be’s” are happening later than they’re supposed to, but I believe that has provided sustaining power now that they are being realized. I know the blessings I now have are for life instead of just passing fads. It’s like that eternal focus that you mention. That alone can get anyone to where they need and want to be :)

  12. ‘Should’ is one of the worst words in the English language because of the amount of guilt and shame that can be attached to it and your actions (or lack of them). Using the word should implies an order when have to adhere to instead of allowing us the freedom of choice – it’s no wonder we doubt ourselves and worry so much in our lives!
    Great post Lishen!

  13. There’s a big myth out there about having it all. Sure you can have some of it but that requires focus and action. And focus needs to be away from material froth which soon fades and as you say on more enduring things.
    Live life looking forward and not in the rear view mirror!

  14. It is great to know that despite the flooding of bloggers on the internet, there still surface someone who can give justice to what they call ‘real blogging’. And you are one of them. Thank you for sharing these wonderful ideas. I really appreciate it.

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