Exercises for Self-Awareness (part 2) – the “should” exercise

Last week, I talked about self-awareness tools such as the MBTI, the Enneagram, and the Via survey of signature strengths. This week, I’d like to offer you a description of another self-awareness exercise that I’ve found powerful and illuminating. And more exercises will come in future blog posts!

The Should Exercise

I learned this one in Gestalt training at the Transpersonal Therapy Centre.

Background:

We all have internalized rules and messages that we carry around inside us. In Gestalt, these messages are known as introjections — something we swallowed whole and haven’t “chewed on” enough to see if it’s truly our own desire/rule, or if we’ve just absorbed it from the outside world.

Every time you hear “I should” in your head/voice, it’s a sign that you might be dealing with an introjection — and thus it’s an invitation for you to take a closer look.

Step one: “I should”

Spend ten minutes or so writing down all the “I should”s or “I shouldn’t”s that regularly come into your mind.

Here’s what my list looked like the first time I did this exercise (November 2008 – I still have the piece of paper!):

  • I should pay off debt.
  • I should have more money.
  • I should be on time.
  • I should do something for my sister.
  • I should get more done in less time.
  • I should have fun.
  • I should have passion.
  • I should be loving and accepting and spiritual.
  • I should organize my time better.
  • I should chill out.
  • I should practice the piano more.
  • I should get a real job.
  • I should make some friends.
  • I should meditate.
  • I should stop worrying.

Step two: “You should”

One statement at a time, ask someone you trust to read your list back to you, reading it as “You should…”.

So, my partner would say, “You should pay off debt.”

After each statement my partner reads to me, I take a moment to:

  • notice any internal feelings or emotions that come up in me as I hear the statement.
  • notice whether it feels like my own voice, something I truly want to do, or whether it’s someone else’s voice (e.g. often someone has a “should” statement that really belongs to a parent, and as soon as they hear someone else say “You should…” they recognize that this statement is their parent’s voice, not their own inner guide).

Step three: Decide and Take Ownership

After each statement my partner reads to me, I decide if “I will” or “I won’t”, and then I report the new statement back to them.

Example:

My partner: “You should pay off debt.”

Me: “I will pay off debt.”

(Or, “I won’t pay off debt.”)

(Or, “I will pay off debt within five years.”)

(Or, “I will not focus on paying off debt until I finish school.”)

Whatever you choose — whether you will, or won’t, or under which conditions — is fine. The key part is that instead of carrying around an unexamined “I should”, a statement weighing you down with judgment, you are now carrying around a decision that you have made and owned yourself.

It can be incredibly liberating to move from, “I should practice the piano more,” to “You know what? I don’t want to. I won’t.”

It can be empowering to move from, “I should organize my time better,” to “I will be highly organized from 8am-12pm everyday, and after that will work in an unstructured way.”

Whether you’re already smitten with this exercise or not, I invite you to give it a try and see what you discover.

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Laura McGrath is an Ottawa-based life coach and therapist who works with clients all over the world. She and the love of her life do a kick-ass job keeping “shoulds” out of the house.

If you’d like to talk more about self-awareness exercises designed just for you, Laura is more than happy to pick up the phone and have a conversation. Get in touch.

 

Laura McGrath, CPCC, is a Toronto-based co-active life coach who helps smart people to live from their hearts. Let's talk! You can subscribe to Ready for Change news to receive thoughtful notes on personal growth, and you can contact Laura to find out if coaching is right for you.

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  1. […] It’s a fitting question to pop up here in the series-esque self-awareness posts I’ve got going (self-awareness surveys, the “should” exercise). […]