Cultural Expectations: A Weight You Don't Have To Take On

“When you graduate, you should use your degree.  As you interview you should pick a job that allows you to move up.  When you hit your 20s, you should get married.  When the 30’s arrive, you should have children.  Wait! Don’t take that job. You should make more money! Mothers should stay at home.  What are you doing? You should dress more flattering.  Careful of missing that opportunity--you should always say yes…blah, blah, blah, should, should, should!!!” 

Could you sense a tinge of hostility from me? Cultural expectations are filled with the should virus, and like you, I have grown up with visual snapshots to compare my life to. These snapshots come from years of messages about who we should be, and what our life should look like.  Our brain clicks in the snapshot. We compare our current situation, and just like that, we have a gauge by which we measure our current circumstances and future goals.  Do I have the checklist?  Does my life look like the image? It’s an endless game of all Facebook lurkers.  Guilty?  We all are.  

The danger of the should snapshot is that it is so often steeped in the interest of others.  Your mother wants a life for you where she can feel comfortable.  The media wants you to desire an image that aligns with watching their movies and buying their products. Your friends want your choices to align with what they have chosen for their life. 

Think carefully about why we want to measure up to a should snapshot. Approval?  Sure.  But it’s more than that. Even approval comes from a desire for something internal.  What we really want is to feel good.  We measure our lives by cultural expectations that tell us that the key to a happy and a fulfilling life is rooted in achieving the should snapshot. 

So, let’s get clear.  What you WANT is happiness and joy in your life.  What you want is to feel STRONG, peaceful, fulfilled.  The problem is, we have been attacked and misled by the should virus.  Achieving a should is no guarantee that you will feel any real sense of happiness.  And in my experience, many people find themselves chasing their shoulds and feeling immensely pressured, tired and trapped. 

This does not mean that all the should snapshots are bad, wrong or unfulfilling by nature. Quite the contrary, some people are immensely fulfilled by living a life that fits nicely into the traditional milestones and should snapshots.  But many of us will look up at some point and feel that something in our life falls short of this fictitious barometer.  And it is imperative that you get clear about your own real desires.   Choose a snapshot that reflects what truly bring you moments of joy, peace and fulfillment.  This may look like a Kodak commercial or resemble an episode of Honey Boo Boo.  It doesn’t matter.  Truly!  It really doesn’t!  When you strip away the shoulds and step outside the snapshot, you are left with a million daily moments.  How do you want to spend them?  Does living in a small trailer feel freeing and comfortable for you?  Great. Then do it.  Does working an entry-level job in an area that fascinates you feel better than a big paycheck?  Then go for it!

In the end, we are left with the feeling of our moments.  Success is amazing but it’s not measured by one ruler.  Success is a feeling.  It’s a feeling that we have achieved what matters to us.  It’s a feeling that we have built a life that feels meaningful, passionate and fulfilling.  This is the secret.  It truly looks different for everyone.  Shoulds are generic.  You are not generic.  Only you can get clear about what makes you feel STRONG and happy.  So next time you feel the should snapshot creeping up on you, step away from the attack, and give yourself permission to be Honey Boo Boo if it feels right for YOU!  


Dr. Erin Foley is a STRONG life coach and professional speaker. This post originally appeared here on her blog.   Sign up for a free coaching session today and take the first step toward building a life that feels meaningful, happy and STRONG.  For more information, visit ErinMFoley.com.