Letting Go of Shoulds This New YearAround this time of year, you’ll inevitably see articles about how so many of us fail to follow through on our resolutions. Within a few months or even weeks, we drop whatever intentions we originally had.

I think a big reason why we fail to stick to our resolutions is because they’re really “shoulds” — as in I should be more efficient at work. I should exercise more. I should be more focused on my goals. I should be more organized. I should eat differently. I should look differently.

“Shoulds” don’t speak to our deep desires. Rather, they’re steeped in shame.

Shoulds derive from our internal or external critics, said Amy Pershing, LMSW, ACSW, executive director of Pershing Turner Center in Annapolis, Md., and clinical director of the Center for Eating Disorders in Ann Arbor, Mich. They derive from a place of judgment.

“We are ultimately hoping to be more acceptable or lovable, either in our own eyes or the eyes of others,” she said. So we try to improve ourselves and assume that shame spurs change.

But, as Pershing said, shame only spurs more shame. She often tells her clients to remember this: “The more I try to fix me, the more I stay in shame.”

Pershing encouraged readers to replace shame with self-care. That is, focus on what truly nourishes you. Focus on what’s true to who you really are. This might mean gaining “self-awareness and [giving yourself] the permission to meet your own needs or goals.”

In fact, she said that resolutions are needless. “We don’t need resolutions to do the things that really matter to us because they are driven from a place of hearing, not judging.”

Pershing shared these ideas for relinquishing shoulds this New Year:

  • Focus on your wants (not on “supposed to’s”). Simply ask yourself: “What do I really want?” Or “what is my life missing that would make me really happier, healthier or more centered?” “What would bring me more peace, joy, or contentment?” If you aren’t sure, Pershing suggested asking yourself these questions: “When do I feel best? How can I strive to create more of that energy?”
  • Listen to your inner world. Pershing suggested checking in with yourself for a few minutes throughout the day. Pick a quiet spot, focus on your breathing for a minute or two, and ask yourself these questions: How am I physically right now? How am I emotionally? How am I intellectually (i.e., “what am I thinking about”)? How am I spiritually (which may mean “how do I feel about my world right now and place in it”)? She stressed the importance of allowing any answers that come up, and checking in with “compassion, curiosity and calmness regarding the information [you] uncover.” Lastly, ask yourself: “Is there anything I need or desire right now in any of these areas? Can I allow myself to have it?”
  • Take small steps. Your answers to the above questions might be incredibly simple, Pershing said. For instance, this might be giving yourself more downtime, going to bed when you’re tired, setting limits with others, letting yourself say no (or yes), eating what sounds good or wearing what feels good, she said. “Then invite yourself to take that step a little more often. That’s enough.” And keep in mind that these answers may change over time, she added.

Letting go of shoulds may be tough. We might not even realize that our goals are really shoulds in disguise. As Pershing suggested, taking the time to listen to ourselves — to explore what’s happening physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually — can clue us into our genuine needs and desires. And it’s these needs and desires that we can respond to by taking action — one small, nourishing step at a time.