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Why Letting Go Is So Hard

It's time to stop "shoulding."

By Aaron PacePublished 7 months ago 4 min read
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


When I was 9, I loved animals and was sure I would be a zoologist. At 13, I knew I would be a geneticist. By 18, a mechanical engineer (which is what I got my degree in).

I've never been a zoologist, geneticist, or even a mechanical engineer. For many years, I worked in distribution of durable goods and software development. I've also dabbled in the solar industry and have continued writing software.

I've been gainfully employed for more than 22 years, but I still haven't figured out what I want to do when I grow up. Truthfully, that recognition after all these years does carry some regret with it.


I spend a lot of time making mental lists of things I need to do. In moments of clarity, I focus long enough to write some of those things down. The to do lists of life are endless.

For all the time we devote to our list of to do items, most of us don't spend much time, if any, on to be lists. Being is something that, for many of us, just happens.

In April 2011, Lynn Robbins spoke to a group of more than 20,000 people about the notions of both being and doing. He said. . .

"To be and to do are inseparable."

"To do without to be is hypocrisy, or feigning to be what one is not - a pretender."

"Be without do really isn't being - it is self-deception, believing oneself to be good merely because one's intentions are good."

"Do without be - hypocrisy - portrays a false image to others, while be without do portrays a false image to oneself."

Both being and doing are important. However, we live in an age when there's a certain amount of toxic focus on those two things, individually and collectively. Trying to show up for people exactly how they expect us to and/or attempting hyper-productivity are the two most visible symptoms of this toxicity.

Within the bounds of those extremes, many of us spend a lot of time telling ourselves or others what we or they should do or should be.

The biggest problem with should: it's rarely accompanied by either a desire or a plan on how to bring about what we should do or be. It's nothing more or less than trying to conform with how we see ourselves as we think others see us. A lot of us, however, have a genuine desire to please others. That's why letting go of should can be so hard.

  • I should go back to school and earn that degree or certification
  • I should go to the gym
  • I should eat healthier
  • I should date more (or less)
  • I should get a different job
  • And so on


The existence of civil society requires that most people embrace certain characteristics and behaviors. For example, people must generally be kind toward each other, must be willing to work to provide for family and pay taxes in order to support infrastructure and social programs, and must avoid behaviors that are generally harmful to self and others.

Outside of a relatively small handful, however, in terms of characteristics and behaviors, the sky's the limit.

When properly motivated, should gives way to will, and that is when change happens. Again, without proper motivation, however, should becomes the rod by which we measure ourselves and others and is often born from deficiencies we see in ourselves.

So, how do we stop shoulding on ourselves?

Nancy Colier, a licensed clinical social worker, posited an interesting approach to breaking the "should/want" cycle in our lives. When faced with a decision, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I doing this because I want to or because I should? (That should could be defined by your own internal desire or that of another person for you.)
  • If you "should" then "why do I believe I should or what do I fear will or won't happen if I don't do it?"

Colier notes, "Even if your actions remain unchanged, simply identifying your choice as a 'should' or 'want' is meaningful, and will help you know your true motivations and intentions and thus - know yourself."

After answering those questions, she advises setting aside a period of time as a "should-free zone" when you attend to wants over "shoulds".

Of course, it is possible to put too much focus on the wants of our lives which has the potential to negatively impact fulfillment of responsibilities and obligations to others.

Herein lies the daily challenge: striking a balance between meeting our own needs and those of others. And, make no mistake, it is a challenge. Sometimes, it can be a daily struggle between self-focus and self-detriment. Most days won't go perfectly; we'll be too self-absorbed or too negligent in personal care.

The important endpoint: it's time for us to stop shoulding on ourselves. To paraphrase Master Yoda: do or do not, there is no should.


Thanks for reading!

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About the Creator

Aaron Pace

Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.

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