The Movement away from Shoulds

The other day, we looked at how moving away from facades and towards the authentic self represents faithful growth. One of the major facades people are prone to hiding behind is the notion of ‘shoulds’, doing things simply because we feel we are obligated — by others or by God — to do so. The framework of growth we’re thinking through in this series includes as part of its understanding of spiritual growth, a movement away from these ‘shoulds’, which “originate from some idealized sense of what we must be to be acceptable, lovable, and worthwhile” (10).* Today I’d like to think a bit more about how this can be a movement of genuine, faithful growth.

But first, what’s so wrong about ‘shoulds’ anyway? After all, regardless of what our moral or religious commitments are, we all believe that there are ways of being in the world that are better than others: that, for example, it is better to tell the truth than to lie, or that it is better to resolve conflict peacefully than to resort to assault or murder, or that it is better to contribute to society than to be lazy. And if a sense of obligation causes us to do the right thing, why is that a bad thing?

I don’t think it is actually bad. What it is is immature. The problem with ‘shoulds’ is not that they are sinful, but that they represent an immature motivation for doing the right thing. We do the right thing — give to the poor, feed our children, or refrain from stealing — out of a sense of self-preservation, or as a way of projecting an idealized version of ourselves, instead of because those actions are inherently good. This is good enough as a first step, but it doesn’t represent a mature humanity. It’s good to do the right thing, but it’s better to the right thing for the right reason.

By being driven by ‘shoulds,’ we hand over our power and decisions to others and therefore abdicate our responsibility and accountability. To use the language of coaching, ‘shoulds’ cause us to cease being “in choice,” the mental space where we are aware of our agency and ability to make our own decisions. Additionally, because ‘shoulds’ focus us on specific actions and outcomes, they can blind us to alternative courses of action that would serve the same purposes and manifest the same values while being more authentic expressions of other values and our own personality.

This is all the more pressing because, more often than not, the ‘shoulds’ that drive our decisions are not actually moral or ethical issues, but simply matters of social convention or familial expectation. And here the movement away from them and towards personal decision-making is even more important for our maturation. Because, if we don’t make this move, we end up living our parents’ lives instead of our own. This isn’t easy; the weight of these expectations is often very heavy.

If some of this sounds familiar, I wrote about these themes in the Summer in a post reflecting on the Freudian idea of the superego. The most substantive part of that post is worth repeating here:

We can think of the superego … as being a falsework, a temporary structure built to support a building as it’s being constructed until it can support itself. Critically, however, it is not the building itself, and must be dismantled for the building to function as designed. This is precisely Paul’s point when he talks about the Law having been our tutor or governess (Gal 3.23ff). It was necessary while we were immature, but now that a new and mature path has been opened for us, we no longer need it. A fully constructed tower does not need falsework. A grown up does not need a nanny.

… True, mature, Christian decision-making is not a rejection of our desires (id) or cognition (ego) in favour of ‘faithfulness’ to the ‘Thou shalts’ and ‘Thou shalt nots’ of a received tradition (superego). This would be a rejection of our adulthood and lead to a perpetual childhood. Nor is it simply a perpetual reaction against the superego. That would similarly be a rejection of maturity and lead to a perpetual adolescence — not living our own life but living in rebellion against our parents. Rather, we are called to a conscious engagement with what we have received, making it our own, and living from our own (Spirit-led) conscience rather than in conformity with or rebellion to external rules.

To use the language we’ve been using about faith and faithfulness, the movement away from ‘shoulds’ is a way of showing up for ourselves, others, and God because it’s essentially waking up from a trance state where we are just going through the motions of what is expected of us. Just as we saw in the previous post how true community and communion are impossible when we are hiding behind facades, so too are they impossible when we are lost in trance, asleep at the wheel as it were.

In order to foster genuine, whole and healed relationships, it is vital that we wake up and show up, not just doing what is expected of us, but doing what is genuinely and truly good for us.

In the interest of space, I’ll end this post here. When the series returns, we’ll look at the movement away from conformity.


* Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au, The Discerning Hearth (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006).

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