Big Shoulders and the Tyranny of Shoulds

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Stuck in the Shoulds

My 18 year old son recently overheard a conversation where I was explaining how the word ‘should’ can signal harmful patterns in our thinking and behaving. Later that evening he quipped to me “Hey Mom, if shoulds are harmful to us does that mean our shoulders are bad for us?” 

I was like, ‘huh?’ My just husband grinned at his witty son and waited for me to catch on. Should… shoulder… should… shoulder…? In full confession, I actually had to spell them out in my head before I caught up with my smiling son and husband.

“Ahh! I get it! Good one! Should is in shoulder!”

And so I replied, “Our shoulders are great for us! They hold our backpacks up, they help our arms move well, and they can take on burden. That only becomes a problem when we think we should always be able to carry certain things and not be so burdened by them.” 

Big Shoulders

“Hey, you know who has really big shoulders?!” I continued. My son rolled his eyes, knowing the answer on my lips. “God! God has really big shoulders! But because we think we should be able to do everything and never be exhausted or upset, we berate ourselves and forget that He is there asking us to come rest with Him.”

As my son began to fade away into teenage oblivion I marveled at his wit. How had I never before made the connection about ‘shoulds’ and shoulders? About the size of my shoulders and your shoulders and the shoulders of our ever-present and ever-loving God?

God’s shoulders can take on all of those ‘shoulds’ that have weighed us down. He can renew us with the grace that comes from open, humble prayer. We have been justified already by our faith (Romans 5:1) so how come we feel we have to do it all by ourselves? He lovingly invites us to become still and to release the weight of our shoulds, musts, and oughts off our own shoulders.

Tyranny of the Shoulds

So often we fall into the tyranny of the shoulds: I should lose weight. I should have more energy. I should be spending more time in prayer. I should be journaling. I shouldn’t be getting so upset. I should be able to make my children listen to me. I should be able to keep my home clean. I should always have the right answer. They should do better. They should know better… should should should! 

In society certain behaviors and personal qualities are often promoted as desirable. Meanwhile others are given very little importance. For instance things like being good at our work, being moral, as well as being attractive, outgoing, sociable, and self-disciplined are often reinforced by the culture. And because we want to be liked and accepted by other people, we take on many of their rules. These become part of our own belief system on how we ‘should’ be. But these shoulds can sometimes get us into trouble, particularly when we can’t live up to them.

Helpful or Harmful

Some of our shoulds can be helpful, of course. For example, the belief that I should be friendly and supportive to others helps me to have good relationships. The belief that I should work hard at school helped me be successful academically. Same for you. You too have many helpful shoulds. 

However, holding on to some of our beliefs in absolute, inflexible ways increases our chances of becoming exhausted. Especially when we can’t meet our own expectations. For example, if I believe that I should always do well and never struggle, or if I believe that I should always be confident and relaxed, but in reality I feel shy and self-conscious, I will end up feeling very stressed and unhappy. 

This limits the expression of God’s love in me. Whenever I tell myself that things should always be a certain way or that I must always achieve certain things, I put myself under a huge amount of pressure and increase the chances I will end up drained—emotionally, mentally, socially, physically and spiritually.

A Lighter Burden

Of course learning to be flexible doesn’t mean that I throw out my values or goals. It simply means that when I begin to succumb to exhaustion because of those shoulds it is an opportunity to turn to God, instead of my own strength. I hope this little play on words helps you catch the ‘shoulds’ in your own thought patterns, and helps you hand them over to the strong shoulders of the God who tells us:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Copyright 2020 Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett

Heidi Lepper Barrett is a native born Californian (Santa Barbara to be exact!) who made her way to Iowa after earning a Ph.D. in Social/Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1996. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Iowa, Heidi began teaching at Drake University in 2000. That was also the year, at age 30, she was baptized Catholic alongside her first newly born son. Heidi is married to Joe and they have two sons.

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