by Jeanne Stevens
As the firstborn with two younger brothers, I joyfully assumed the self-appointed responsibility of always looking out for them. My parents didn’t enlist me in this role. My brothers were perfectly fine and would have preferred I stay out of their business, but what is an older sister to do? Boss I became. When I recall my childhood memories, I can still hear them saying, “You’re not the boss of me.” But I was the oldest, and I did what I thought I should do. Being a bossy older sister is not the only should I have allowed into my life.
Shoulds are everywhere.
I should floss more. OK, I should just floss.
I should drink less coffee and more water.
I should exercise more.
These shoulds seem innocuous. They aren’t trying to sabotage your life. But, it’s the persistent and more damaging shoulds that many of us allow that have Obligation bossing us around. Like a squatter taking up free room and board in our minds, obligation leaves us overwhelmed and overthinking our decisions.
The research is clear; in almost every direction you look, people are feeling higher levels of stress, anxiety, and mental exhaustion. Burnout is rampant, and we feel like we can’t keep up with all our responsibilities. With obligation fatigue weighing heavy, we still answer the damaging call these silent shoulds have on our lives.
Early on, when Jarrett and I were first married, we were invited over to friends for dinner. I asked the host, “What can I bring?” and they responded by saying, “Oh, I know you are in a full season - don’t bring anything. If you want to pick up a bottle of wine, that’s fine, but just bring yourself.” But something in me refused just to bring myself. I had to bring a homemade, Pinterest-worthy appetizer that I did not have the energy to make. I remember hustling to pull it all together for the dinner party.
I remember sitting at dinner that night, wondering what had held me back from just bringing a bottle of wine. Why did I always allow that should feeling to boss me around? As we drove home, Jarrett said, “You were really quiet tonight, is something going on?” I burst into tears and said, “Why can’t I just do the simple thing? Why do I always have to do more and be more and give more?” I was exhausted from living under the weight of letting obligated shoulds drive my life.
Many of us have learned how to listen and follow the pressure of saying YES to should.
We put shoulds on ourselves.
We allow others put shoulds on us.
We allow our society to put shoulds on us.
Social Media puts shoulds on us.
Shoulds never lead to freedom, they just lead to more obligation, and Obligation has a predictable pattern. Whenever you do something because of an unhealthy obligation it always leads to some form of resentment. That feeling of, “I didn’t want to do this, but I felt like I had to.” Resentment often looks like bitterness and ignites a multi-layered, complex emotional reaction. Bitterness always affects the person with resentment more than the person you resent. Whenever resentment enters a person’s life, it always leads to a feeling of entitlement, and entitlement wants to settle the score and is usually looking for a nice tip. And when unmet needs go unmet, some kind of escape occurs. When obligation drives our decisions, it leads to a frustrating and dead-end life that we want to escape.
Obligation → Resentment → Entitlement → Escape
The apostle Paul is clear, we are not called to be people that live under the weight and burden of obligated shoulds.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” -Romans 13:8
Love never operates out of obligation. Love operates out of choice. Love is the overwhelming reality of a God that gave His son, not because of obligation but because of grace. Love enables us to choose what we otherwise would not choose. Should says yes, even when yes is not best. Should says you have no choice. Love always says you can choose.
So instead of all of the shoulding that so many of us are doing, let’s choose a different path - let’s choose the path of love.
Jeanne Stevens is the founding and co-lead pastor of Soul City Church in Chicago and author of What’s Here Now? A sought-after speaker, leader, and writer, Jeanne's passion is to help people wake up to their purpose as they pursue a life of wholehearted freedom. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Jarrett, and their two children.