The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School.
If you'd like to send yourself into a shame spiral, just start telling yourself what you should be doing. I'll never forget sitting with my spiritual director years ago lamenting some things I felt I "should" be doing. "Stop shoulding on yourself!" she told me. Which still makes me giggle to this day. "Why do you think you should be doing X, Y, or Z? Do you want to do those things?" She made me explore the line of thinking behind my shoulds. Why do I think I should be doing that? When I think I should be doing something, why do I think I should, and what is it that I want for myself or others by doing it?
There are, of course, many things we should do. You should pay your taxes. You should brush your teeth. You should tell the people you love that you indeed love them. You should show up to work on time. Some things we should do because they are our basic responsibilities.
Other shoulds, though, frequently end up placing judgment on our self-worth, making us feel like we're not good enough. I ran across a great article on Psychology Today's website that talks about this in more detail, and takes the same approach my old spiritual director did by suggesting that instead of thinking about "shoulds" we think about "wants."
This idea of shoulds and wants came to mind when I was having coffee with someone recently. This person was explaining how it had been a practice at one time for them to volunteer regularly around causes they care about. Life in the last couple of years has redirected their priorities, and there simply hasn't been enough time. If you've ever had a thought like this ("I should be volunteering more," "I should be serving others more," etc.), when you catch yourself ask instead, "Why should I be serving more? What do I want by doing this?"
At St. Paul's, service is a big part of our communal Rule of Life: "Growing in Relationships. Growing in Service. Growing in Christ." While we call it a "rule," we also believe rules should not be rigid or shame inducing. We talk about growing in service because service is a core value for Christians, especially since Jesus taught us that he "came not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45, Matt. 20:28). Our "why" around growing in service is that we serve because our Savior Christ served. When it comes to the what, the question my friend might want to ask is, "What makes me think I should serve? What is it that I really want out of serving?" The answer might be something like, "Because I want to be a person of service."
The implications of this are far different than the self-shame of shoulding. Someone who discerns that they want to be a person of service has then determined something about what they truly value. The question then becomes one of priorities. If I want to be a person of service then what can I do to bring service back into my life? Maybe it's true that in this season of life there simply isn't the time to serve in the ways you have in the past. Maybe there are simpler things one could do to be of service. I think of our Lantern Light ministry, for instance. Some people take the time out of their day to go to Lantern Light on the first Tuesday of the month to serve meals. Other people take a little time at home to make sandwiches or cookies for that event, which may be more manageable. Others, still, simply pick up chips or drinks at the store and drop them off on Sunday. Each level takes a little less time than the other. Even if you have very little time, there are any number of ways you can serve, and still address your desire to be a person of service.
Check out that Psychology Today article if you struggle with shoulds. You can also reach out to me, Mtr. Liz, or Dr. Jeanne if you'd like support in figuring out what values lie behind any of the shoulds in your life. Let us support you in keeping from shoulding on yourself.