Too many of us live our lives based on what we think we’re supposed to do or should be doing. Without realizing it, we have let others’ beliefs become our own. That’s fine when those beliefs leverage our strengths and passions and move us toward our dreams. But all too often, these internalized beliefs lead us in the wrong direction and cause us to make choices that are inconsistent with who we are and what we want. So we take the job that fills the wallet but not the heart. We overcommit and are plagued with guilt and resentment. We give and give and never get back what we want. And we wonder how we got here and what to do about it.
While writing my book The Should Syndrome: Break Free and Start Living the Life You Want, I came up with strategies to help people take charge of their lives and stop letting their “Shoulds” dictate their choices. Here are some ideas to help you let go of your own setbacks:
1. Yes also means no.
Wishful thinking aside, we have a limited amount of time and energy. When we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to something else. So, before you agree to take on that high-profile project at work, consider what you are saying no to… is it time with your family, sleep, volunteering or just time to relax? The benefits may be worth the sacrifice but understand the trade-offs before you decide.
2. Remember: It’s almost never about you.
All too often we get caught up in self-doubt and assume that people’s reactions are a reflection on us. “She didn’t call me back … I must have offended her.” “No one responded to my suggestion at that meeting … I must not know what I’m talking about.” Most of the time, it’s about them, not us. They are distracted or busy or having a bad day. If you really need to know, then ask. “Is everything okay? I was worried when you didn’t call me back.” If you learn that it really was about you, then correct the situation. But most often, you’ll find that it was about something else entirely.
3. Take time to reflect.
It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of our everyday lives. Taking time out of the daily routine can bring new perspectives. Reflect back on the day, the month or the year and give yourself kudos for your accomplishments. Think about your unique talents and capabilities. Have you been using them? Reflect on the future. What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to spend your time and energy? As you gain clarity on who you are and what you want, you’ll start making choices that move you in the direction that is right for you.
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4. Pay attention.
Sometimes we don’t know what we want. One way to figure it out is to pay attention to how different experiences make you feel. Does this new assignment excite you, petrify you or both? Did that conversation with your boss make you angry or motivated? Do you feel guilty about not spending more time with your family? Each situation and interaction is an opportunity to learn about you. Which activities energize you? What makes you feel afraid or happy or angry?
If you have trouble deciphering your feelings, then pay attention to your body. Our physical reactions are a window into our emotions. Closed posture, high-pitched voice, churning stomach, tears—these are signs of anger, resentment and fear. Smiling, laughing, a spring in your step—these are signs of joy, contentment and enthusiasm. Start paying attention to your feelings and see what they tell you about who you are and what you want.
5. Learn to trust yourself.
We often hesitate because we’re afraid we’ll make the wrong choice or we worry about things that might happen. “Should I take that new position? What if I fail? What if I get pregnant and want to take time off? Should I stay in this relationship? What if it doesn’t work out?” We never have all of the answers – life is full of unexpected events. The key to living the life you want is to make the best decision you can based on the information you have at the time—and then to trust yourself. Trust that you will find a way to be successful. Trust that you will be able to handle whatever happens. Remember, very few decisions can’t be undone. It’s in your control. So, make the choice that works best for you, and trust that it will be okay.
Karen See is a consultant and the author of the book, The Should Syndrome: Break Free and Start Living the Life You Want, which is available at www.theshouldsyndrome.com.