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“Guilt is defined as internalized anger over perceived and unwanted obligations.” – Lloyd J. Thomas

Do you walk through life – at work, at home, at play and in relationship – “should-ing” all over yourself? Do you feel overwhelmed consistently carrying the burden of “I should?” Do you notice how feeling guilty all the time leads to feelings of resentment, frustration or anger – whether or not you do what you think you should? Either way you lose – guilt remains. “Shoulding” never results in experiencing inner peace or well-be-ing – ever.

The underlying self-defeating message of “shoulding” is “I’m supposed to live up to my own or someone else’s expectation or demands – a parent, a relative, a friend, a cultural norm, a media mantra – that somehow I need to live my life do-ing or be-ing in a way that demands “I should.” The self-defeating aspect is that, consciously or unconsciously, “shoulding” keeps one in a consistent emotional state of emotional reactivity.

Stop “shoulding” and start “choosing”
“A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction.” – Rita Mae Brown

The antidote to “I should” is “I choose.” Changing our internal script from should to choose fosters empowerment and ownership – we are in charge, in control. The energy of “choice” is empowering and freeing – even if I choose not to be or not to do. Choice lifts the burden of guilt. I am indebted to no one. Our inner judge and critic that wags its finger and shakes its critical and judgmental head when I don’t do what I should is now silenced. Freedom and lightness arise. We can breathe deeply.

I choose to get started on that report. I choose to ask a friend/colleague to lunch. I choose to leave early to attend my daughter’s dance recital. I choose to live a lifestyle that makes me happy. I choose the marriage ceremony that I want. I choose to walk for half an hour. I choose a profession that is meaningful to me. I choose social activities that energize me and support my values. Choices – my choices. I’m consciously choosing to take charge of my life.

The freedom that comes with making my own choices allows for two responses:

  1. No. I consciously don’t choose to do/be that in this moment. I can choose to do/be at a later date, or maybe not at all. And that’s perfectly OK. I’m the master of my life and I make the choices I want to make.
  2. Yes. I consciously choose to (do/be) and I also know I’ll feel better – if not in the immediate moment, at least afterwards.

When I choose, I am in charge; I am strongly grounded in my decision and I have the power to make that choice. I feel empowered; I am not a victim. I’m not living according to my own or anyone else’s “programming.” I’m conscious and awake in my choosing.

“The more I give myself permission to live in the moment and enjoy it without feeling guilty or judgmental about any other time, the better I feel about the quality of my work.” – Wayne Dyer

What “shoulding” can teach us
If you live life enmeshed in guilt – consistently telling yourself “I should,” now is the best time to inquire into why you live in a prison of guilt. When you increase your level of self-awareness (understanding why I’m living this way) you increase your capacity to live life at cause instead of at effect. When you live life at cause, you are in charge, in control; you choose. When you live at effect, you are reactive, living like a puppet whose strings are controlled by some belief, person or force that tells you how to do, be or have. You’re a victim.

So, here’s an exercise that can support you to free yourself from the “prison of should” and take charge of your life, to live at cause:

  • Explore your beliefs (“shoulds”) around an area of your life (e.g., career and livelihood, intimacy and partnership, personal and spiritual growth, friends and family, health and wellness, personal environment and organization, abundance and finances, play and recreation). List some of those beliefs (shoulds).
  • As you explore these beliefs, observe, watch and witness how you react when you say each belief aloud. What happens in your body? What feelings, emotions and bodily sensations do you experience? What are your breathing and heart rate like? Your posture? What self-judgments come from your Inner Judge and Critic?
  • How has your behavior been programmed by this belief?
  • What might happen if you choose not to follow this belief? How does your body feel, what feelings or emotions come up? Do you feel guilty? Is there someone else’s voice underneath this belief that is telling you, “Hey, you should do/be this way?” Whose voice is it? Do you feel guilty if you even think about not obeying this voice? Why?
  • What would happen if you made a modest test and chose to not follow this belief, to act against this particular “should” today, this week, at this event or in this circumstance?

This practice can support you to become conscious of “who I am” and “how I am” in my life – at work, at home, at play and in relationship – how you live habitually and reactively and not from a place of conscious choice.

Consciously doing this exercise can give you invaluable information about you self. Knowing what makes you tick and behave the way you do can support you to make conscious, healthier choices and give you greater control of your life – reducing and eliminating the “programming” that has run your life. When you stop “shoulding” on yourself, you allow your mind, body and spirit to take a deep breath of relaxation and engage in life with a heightened sense of empowerment, control and well-be-ing.

Some questions for self-reflection:

  • Do you feel guilty much of the time? What “should” causes you to feel guilty? What would happen if you “chose” to act differently? How so?
  • What beliefs about life make you feel guilty, angry or resentful? What “shoulds” are involved? Whose “shoulds” are they?
  • What beliefs or “shoulds” cause you guilt around food, exercise, family, friends, work, finances, organization, and other areas of your life? Why?
  • What commitment or promises have you made that cause you to feel guilt or fear? Why did you make these commitments? Were you acting at cause or at effect?
  • Do you go along to get along at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Does this behavior bring you happiness and inner peace, or guilt and resentment? Why?
  • Can you choose to banish the word “should” from your vocabulary for one day, or one week?
  • Was “you should…” a familiar refrain when you were growing up? Have you brought childhood “shoulds” into your adult life? How so? Do they lead to inner peace, harmony and well-being or to fear, resentment and guilt?

“Guilt is anger directed at ourselves–at what we did or did not do.” – Peter McWilliams, Life 101

(c) 2018, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and True North Partnering. All rights in all media reserved.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to share this reading with you and I hope you find it insightful and useful. Perhaps you’ll share this with others, post it on a bulletin board, and use it to generate rich and rewarding discussion.

What is the one thing that is keeping you from feeling successful, happy, confident, in control or at peace as you live your life – at work, at home, at play or in relationship? Maybe you know what that “thing” is…maybe you don’t. You just have a feeling that something has to change, whether or not you embrace that change. And how would that change support you to show up as a “better you?”

I’m available to guide you to create relationships that reflect honesty, integrity, authenticity, trust, and respect whether at work or outside of work. I support you to focus on the interpersonal skills that enable you to relate to others with a high level of personal and professional satisfaction – unhampered by personal inconsistencies, beliefs, “stories,” and behaviors that create barriers to a harmonious, pleasant, conscious, compatible, healthy and productive relationship.

I coach by phone, Skype and in person. For more information, 770-804-9125, or pvajda(at)

You can also follow me on Twitter: @petergvajda.