Recently I have added a list of triggering “shoulds”, (specifically Byron Katie’s list of Universal Beliefs) to my yoga therapy intake form. I will admit it seems a bit unusual amid the medical history and lists of symptoms and problems. I find, however, that stress and/ or trauma is nearly always on this problem list. In order to work with stress and trauma, we need to understand our own triggers. Many of these triggers are not physical events or activities but emotional and mental beliefs.
With the growth of social media and the constant advances in consumer marketing, it seems like there are more and more “shoulds” in our life everyday from political opinions to life-hacking solutions. However, “Shoulds” have always been around. They are the basis of morality instilled deeply in us as children and throughout our lives. They are the answer to the toddler’s question, “But, why do I have to do it that way?” and take root when we are forced to protect ourselves from what we see as a threat. Overtime some of these beliefs turn from moral guidance into rules and imperatives, conscious or subconscious scripts for living our lives – not unlike yogic samskaras. When they do, we can become stuck – not only mentally, but physically as well. At this point, they belong on the problem list.
I find that individuals who carry a lot of “shoulds” tend to take on a physical energy and posture of “never enough”. They literally get stuck when trying to inhale. Other individuals are more stuck in what you should not do. They fall into a cycle of shame and guilt when they don’t live up to their own expectations, or in fear, blame and control when others consistently fall short. Eventually they find it difficult to exhale and “let it go”.
Whether we are aware of our beliefs or they are just beneath our consciousness imprinted from childhood or past karma, there is a point where some beliefs exist in stark conflict with our current reality. Over time this conflict begins to surface as stress and cumulative stress can often result in physical symptoms similar to trauma. It really doesn’t matter whether you are “shoulding” yourself or others or being “should” upon, the anxiety is yours to deal with.
The key to moving beyond your triggering beliefs is awareness. Awareness comes from listening to your self-talk and that of others and raising a flag each time you hear the word “should”. Reviewing the Byron Katie List was a jump-starter to awareness for me and has helped me pinpoint a guiding philosophy unique for each patient at this moment in their lives. Working with the list, you can highlight the beliefs that ring true to you and then go back through the list and place a star next to the ones that you know are the source of repetitive stress. You may also choose to reflect on a recent conflict while looking at the list and notice which beliefs might have been triggers in that particular conflict. Fill in the blanks or tweak the language to make it specific for your situation. For example, an easy trigger for me is “kids should respect their parents”. I believe this is true and it is a good idea for me to bring this belief into my household, but it is in direct conflict with my day-to-day existence. Extrapolating from Byron Katie’s Work, I ask myself “What does it feel like to think this thought?” The answer for me is easy – “FRUSTRATING!” It also makes me think I am not a good parent (which I SHOULD be) or maybe even that my child is evil or BAD (which he/she SHOULDN”T be). I might then ask myself “What would it feel like to not have this thought or belief?” Depending on the circumstance, I would feel more relaxed, maybe even slightly amused by the complete irreverence of my children. For fun, I might even take it one step further and turn it around “I should be more respectful of my children”.
On our paths as yogis, we are learning to check in with ourselves daily, to prioritize our needs and wants, and to set guiding intentions for how we want to manifest. We can use our list of “shoulds” as part of this process, just as we reflect upon samskaras as a guide to recognizing our sankalpa. Once you are aware of the thoughts, they will begin to lose a little of their power and, naturally, a little of the stress will drop away. However, there are numerous techniques available to use the beliefs on the list actively in your growth and recovery.
One method is to take each “should” or belief and ask ourselves the following 3 questions:
Is this belief true?
Is it in line with my current intentions / goals? Can I visualize this belief in action as helpful in some specific way?
Is it possible that it is true but not for me or for this moment in my life?
Another helpful “should-buster” technique I find helpful comes from a blog by Dana Mitra. She suggests you ask yourself these questions:
“Whose should is it?
Is it Mine?
Where did I get it?
Does it come from my inner critic or my inner mentor?
Like beliefs, not all “shoulds” are bad, but all are worthy of examination. By bringing awareness to our personal list, we find new energy and empower ourselves to reframe our approach to stress and trauma in our lives. We find that “we are enough” and begin to shed light on those thoughts and beliefs we can choose to let go of, at least for now.