Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda?!

I’m not a big fan of advice giving; ask anyone who knows me well that’s tried to give me, “Maybe you should. . .” line.  But, there are times that even I, a self-proclaimed hater of advice giving, have run across a little gem that I could listen to and even heed.

Back in school, I briefly studied the work of a well known psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis.  Look him up on-line and you’ll find he is rich with inspirational one liners and quotes.  One of my favorite quotes by Dr. Albert Ellis,”Stop shoulding on yourself”.  I love this. Stop should-ing on yourself.  So, what is Dr. Ellis really asking us to do?

“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”, is usually said in response to remembering a past experience where we regret what happened or what action we took or what the consequences were.  “I wish I could have done this, or would have done that, or I Should have done (fill in the blank)”.  The message I really hear in these words, is “I am not happy with what I did or didn’t do and I Regret”. The action that usually follows that message, I am kind-of, or really harshly, beating myself up and making myself feel bad for it. Helpful?  No.  Are we all guilty of it?  Probably, definitely yes.

I think the easiest way for me to understand the Why behind his advice; “shoulding on myself” is not nice.  It’s not coming from a place of kindness or compassion.  It’s coming from a place of judgement and self-criticism. I’m not saying that there isn’t something to be learned from our past experiences and thinking about how we would do them differently next time.  What I’m saying is, the action of making ourselves feel bad for the past, a.k.a. “shoulding on ourselves”, is not going to get us to a place of understanding.  Should-ing is a place of blame. It’s a place where we’re focused on feeling bad about what we “coulda, woulda, shoulda” done.  So, can we just stop it already?!

And How do we do this, you say?  For some of us, who have grown up in a House of Shoulds, I really get that this practice of “stopping the should” is going to be a big change/process/experience.  And the first step is noticing. When you start should-ing on yourself: What does it sound like? What does it feel like when you do it? How often does it happen and is there a pattern to it? For example, I do a lot of should-ing in the morning, or right before bed, or right after I talk to (fill in the blank). And if it feels right and you have a minute or two, write about it and try to dig a little deeper in to your shoulds. What is your should trying to say?  How is it trying to help you?  And eventually, after doing this practice of looking deeply at your Should for a while, see if you can give your inner Should some kindness.

Last piece of advice, and this very important, that kindness needs to be believable to you in This Moment. You can’t give an inner-shoulding-voice that’s been around for a lifetime,  a line of rainbow, glittery B.S. But, you can practice a step towards genuine and heartfelt self-directed kindness.  Maybe today it sounds like, “I see you should and I hear you.  I am doing the best I can”.  Because at the end of the day, I really truly, deep down believe, that You and I are doing the best that we can.

Think of this practice as an invitation to get curious about your Self. To try and dig a little deeper in to your inner world and gain a different perspective.  Because as one of my favorite poets Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better”.

Author: Santa Fe Art Therapy & Counseling

I have a private practice in Santa Fe, NM where I offer online, art therapy and counseling services. My focus is working with people who have a recent or life-long history of trauma and stress. I use a blend of EMDR, talk therapy, art therapy and body-centered mindfulness practices.

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