The job I currently have involves spending a lot of my time overseeing the construction at our hospital here in rural Burundi. I spent 12 years in post-secondary education, culminating in a doctorate that specifically trained me to be a research professor of management. So let the record show that I am no stranger to this sense of not ‘doing what I should.’
“You spent all that time in school, why are you not doing what you trained to do?”
I get that a lot. Not always spoken to me, it also comes from voices inside my head, either me playing it back to myself, or me imagining others saying it to me. I know there are people who feel this way, as they have more or less said so. Some make it obvious, others try to couch it diplomatically. But the implication they, and the voices in my head, all have are the same. “You’re wasting your time because you’re not doing what you should be doing.”
And if I’m being completely honest, I can feel that way myself.
Expectations, both our own and others, can be a huge drain on our contentment. Not because they are necessarily bad, but we have problems when we start to live with a lot of ‘shoulds’
You should be married by now.
You should send your kids to this kind of school
You should take that job
You should spend more time at home
You should take a holiday with your family
You should stay late today until this is done
You should pray more
The list can go on forever, but at the heart of it is the sense we ought to be doing something that we’re not.
Often these things people think we should be doing are good, or noble, or helpful. The problem is not that we shouldn’t do them, it’s the sense they ought to take priority over other things, or even everything. The other problem is when the shoulds in our lives are more personal preferences, things that one person deems more valuable/important than another. Is getting married good? Yes, as is remaining single. Are some private schools good? Yes – and so are some public schools.
Many of the things people pressure us to do reflect more about them.
I want grandchildren, so you should have kids.
I put my kids in a private school, so to validate my choice, you should do the same.
I had to claw my way up the corporate ladder, therefore you should also have to sacrifice your time with your family to get where I am.
When we get caught up in trying to fulfill other people’s expectations for our lives, it will rarely end well. Whether it’s our parents, our boss, our neighbor, or anyone. When we try to meet other people’s goals, life gets hard. We will have a hard time finding contentment when we are trying to fulfill someone else’s dream.
What we ‘should’ do is unique to each one of us. It is also unique to times in our lives. Maybe there is something that I should do, that I will eventually do. Maybe it’s something that I should do, and I’ve already done it, and now I’ve moved on to something else.
It’s one thing to believe you’re doing something wrong. But it feels like it’s a much deeper attack on who we are if we start to believe that we’re doing the wrong thing.
If we think we’re meant to be a school teacher, or a marketing manager, or a software developer, or a stay-at-home parent, or a research scientist, or whatever, …but we are not as “good at it” as we want, that is different. With that, we can always say we need to work harder or find smarter, or learn more, or get more experience or something. We’re doing the right thing, we’re just not yet good enough at it.
But if we think we’re doing the wrong thing, even if we’re doing fairly well at it, that is much harder to accept. If I question not if I am a good father, but whether I even wanted kids – that’s much different.
If we start to think there is something we ‘ought’ to be doing but we’re not, that hits our identity. Hard.
What we need to do is step back and consider if all the should’s in our lives are things we honestly think are true. That God would have us believe. That we think are true.
Identify some thing you think you ‘should’ be doing. Maybe more of it, maybe less. Maybe a different job, different stage in life, different whatever.
Spend some time reading through relevant sections of the Bible, praying and journaling.
Try to see if this truly is something God wants for you. Is it merely your own wish? Is it merely pressure from someone else?
It could be all of teh above, but it’s much better to identify now what is really behind that feeling of “you should.”
Father of complete acceptance,
God of second chances,
You do have desires for us,
ways you want us to live,
But so often we get caught up in pursuing specific paths.
Remind us there are infinite ways to serve you.
there are so many ways to love our neighbor.
Give us peace that we haven’t gone too far in some direction,
Show us that you can use every step we’ve taken.
Help us live not for the approval of others and their expectations,
but for your glory and the good of those around us.