There’s an old joke. “What do you call the physician who graduated last in his class?” The answer is, “doctor.” We sometimes place standards on ourselves that aren’t the world’s standards. You’ve probably never asked your doctor what his grade point average was. After you got your first job out of college, did anyone ask you your grade point average? Yet there are too many of us who push for the perfect grade, the top of the class, or at least above average.
When we’re dealing with burnout, we’re constantly considering how to maintain enough personal agency, and that means limiting our demands. It’s convenient to believe that other people drive our demands, but the more we’re willing to peer into ourselves, the more we realize it’s our own doing.
There are expectations we’ve developed while growing that we carry with us. They’re like the hitchhiking pebble in our shoe. It’s annoying, but it makes the trip with us for quite a while before we can figure out what is happening and finally remove it.
Occasionally, the things we should do are uncomfortable or painful to us, but rarely do we even recognize that the pain is coming from something we have control of. Consider your behavior when you invite friends to dinner. The level of cleanliness is good enough for your family, but, suddenly, when friends are coming over, you must clean. Where did this idea come from? It may have come from your parents as they frantically cleaned the house before their friends came over. If you’re like most of us, you got swept up in the activity as you were asked to vacuum or dust.
In most cases, our friends aren’t going to judge us if there are a few fur balls around or killer dust bunnies under the couch. They came to enjoy time with us, not to investigate us for the good housekeeping seal of approval. However, we believe we should clean before our friends come over because it’s the normal that we learned. It’s not their demand on us that we clean our house, it’s our demand on ourselves.
The trick with “the shoulds” is learning how to realize that they’re even there. They tend to hide out and lurk below our consciousness with the oughts.
Where the shoulds are largely things that we do, “the oughts” are largely the things we regret not doing. We go to the dentist for our teeth cleaning and are asked whether we floss regularly – which, to them, means once a day. Our truthful answer is usually “no.” The answer we sometimes give is a halfhearted “yes,” which, to us, means at least once since our last cleaning.
Whether we do it or not, an “ought” still registers as a demand. It’s a psychic demand that remains until we decide to either give it up or take the action and move it into the category of the things we think we should do.
We “ought” to call our moms more frequently. We “ought” to volunteer more. We “ought” to go back to school for that advanced degree. There are all kinds of “ought tos” that no one but us is demanding. It turns out that most of the demands we have aren’t really about what other people demand from us but are instead are our own beliefs about what we “ought” to do.