Dropping Shoulds and Leaning into Coulds: Navigating Change

The title of this post is the title of the keynote address I’m giving this very day during the annual meeting of The Council of Community Services. I thought it would be fun to share a seriously edited version of the talk with you today, parsed down to the bones. You’re welcome to email me if you’d like to read the transcript of the full talk.

Back when I was 18, my friend Scott said to me, “The only constant is change.”

Being the ornery, argumentative teen I was, I believe my eloquent response was, “Nuh-uh.”

Scott seemed amused while I struggled, and failed, to come up with a single example of something constant. I was literally reaching into the stars for something to prove my point and found, instead, only proof for his truism.

And yet, for the consistency of change, despite the utter certainty of it, we humans aren’t big fans, typically. Changes brings us in blatant contact with the unknown – I say blatant because we’re always heading toward the unknown but our penchant for planning joins forces with our desire for consistency and together, they have a way of fooling us – for stretches at a time, at least – that we’re in the midst of the known. And that’s comfortable.

Change, on the other hand, tends to provoke all sorts of discomfort that quite often isn’t the result of the change itself but rather our resistance to the change – some internal message that says what is should be otherwise. That message touches into a part of each and every one of us that wants there to be something simpler, more cut and dried, about life than there really is.

For better or worse – and I’m going to argue that it’s for better at the end of the day, we have some pretty distinct cues for when we’re resisting change. By learning our cues and training ourselves to notice them as proactively as possible, we put ourselves in a position to move from reactivity – which is ultimately a powerless place, much like the way our legs jerk all of their own volition when hit with a doctor’s mallet – to responsiveness, which is an empowered and conscious place, a place where we stop being the pawns of should and instead have the opportunity to become the masters of could.

So, let’s look at three of those cues one at a time and put some action to them, shall we?

Cue #1: Discomfort

Discomfort comes in physical, emotional, and psychological varieties, all of which have some value in helping us navigate life. Physical discomfort might be saying: Take your hand off the burner! Or, buy pants a size bigger!

Physical discomfort, along with emotional and psychological, might be cuing us into subconscious beliefs or limitations that are quietly at play. For example, when I was in the midst of getting divorced, the discomforts I noticed were a weight on my chest, an uneasy stomach, an aversion to eating, challenges with sleeping. I was getting divorced – of course I was feeling that way!

And yet, there were more subtle issues in the mix, things that have been helpful to me to learn about myself and explore, like how my marriage played into my identity and the need to mourn the identity I had and the future I thought I was moving toward. Attending to my discomfort with as much curiosity and as little judgment and story as possible helped me to get to those important nuances which, in turn, have played a valuable role in my healing process.

Action: Make a practice of noticing your discomfort with as little story and judgment as possible. Bring curiosity to whatever you find. For example, “I’m noticing my jaw is tight. Huh. I’m curious about that.”

Some of my clients have set daily alarms on their phones to remind them to practice scanning their bodies for sensation or discomfort as a way to practice that skill before they really need it.

Cue #2: A desire to blame

Last year, I got upset with a friend. I really thought she had done me wrong and how. I wanted to point a righteous finger right at her and, in that way, free myself from the responsibility of my own feelings. When I dug into that desire to blame, though, what I found was only my own junk; she had done absolutely nothing wrong. Nada.

That’s not to say there aren’t times when people truly behave in a problematic way. At those times, the exploration of the desire to blame is about an honest assessment of if and how you contributed to the situation. Did you allow someone to push the limits of your boundaries for a while before they leapt over them altogether? Could you have communicated your needs or wants more effectively? Did you ignore internal wisdom that said this was a person you would be better off not having a relationship with in the first place?

Action: The next time you notice a desire to blame someone for a situation, do some journaling around it. If you’re lucky enough to have someone in your life who can be both compassionate and bluntly honest, have a conversation with that person, and see if you can parse out your contribution, the available lessons, and options for repairing or addressing the situation that are within your control.

Cue #3: A sense of global certainty, a capital T Truth

My sister and I once had a pretty big argument because we needed to have a meaningful conversation and she felt like we should have it by text which would give us time to process and think and take time in responding, and I felt like we should have it by phone which would offer more intimacy and less opportunity for misinterpretation of tone.

We both became so rigid in our Truths about the style of communication that we never had the bigger conversation; in that way we ultimately missed the opportunity to learn from one another, to explore one another’s perspectives and challenge our own. Our shoulds won out, big time, over the coulds of what we might have gained from that bigger conversation.

Action: Notice when you’re feeling a rigid certainty and bring curiosity to it. Ask yourself, “What are some other ways I might look at this issue?” Challenge yourself to explore an opposing opinion – not to adopt it, necessarily, but to explore it. If you can, invite someone with a different perspective or opinion to help you see things from a different angle.

I can’t promise you that change will always be fun or seamless or comfortable. But I can promise you that as you practice these actions, you’ll come to find change even more useful and navigable – that through your curiosity-based exploration, you’ll find a whole world of coulds where once there were only the landmines of shoulds.

If you want to hear a few more thoughts on this post – or share some of your own! – I’ll be on Instagram Live around 8am Eastern on Friday. The recording will be in my stories until Saturday morning if you miss it!