3 Steps to Stop Suffering of "shoulds"

There are many times when I’ve said to myself that “I should have...” or “I shouldn’t have...” Those words produce guilt and shame which may lead to depression or anxiety. As a therapist, I hear these words every day in what my clients are telling me.  They believe that there was something that they should have known before their traumatic situation happened and they either did something they shouldn’t have or they didn’t do something but should have. We all have put this pressure on ourselves to be mind-readers or future tellers in the past.

These are not healthy ways of thinking. But what we can do instead of using should or shouldn’t? We can change how we think! Once we recognize our wrong thinking, then the next time we are in that same or a similar situation we can think, talk, and act differently.  It is tough to go through current situations, for instance, if I was fired from a job and I find myself “shoulding” and shaming myself. However, I can learn and change future situations.  

As I have continued to process and heal from my own trafficking story and trauma, I recently realized that I said these words a lot to blame myself for men’s exploitation of me.  Even as a young adolescent girl I journaled thoughts of, “I shouldn’t have walked through that door!” or “I shouldn’t have run away that day!” or “I should’ve worn this or said that or called this person...!” Because I didn’t do or say these things I wrongly believed it was my 100% my fault that men took advantage of me.

“It was entirely my fault that I was raped.”  

“It was entirely my fault that I wasn’t loved enough and was trafficked.”

What I’ve been learning through therapy was that those things weren’t true. I learned it wasn’t my fault. I learned that everything that happened to me happened because neglectful adults and bad men made those choices, not me. In my trauma, I tried to figure out the “why” and came up with all the wrong answers!

Concentrating on the difference between how we would have liked our past to be, and how it really was, is likely to cultivate more wrong beliefs, sadness, anger, and shame which may in turn feed behaviors that are inconsistent with our current values, goals, and beliefs. The men who exploited me and sold me had their own past horrible circumstances that led them to do the evil they did to me and others. It doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t justify it, but it explains the real “why it happened.” Rape and trafficking didn’t happen because of anything I did wrong – I was taken advantage of and did not have the skills, maturity, or support from my family and community for it not to happen.  

It is healthy to grieve the absence of what we needed and didn’t have, such as safety, security, a loving family, and a nurturing environment. But how do we stop the suffering of “shoulds” so we can heal instead of sinking deeper into shame and guilt? In my own counseling, and listening to my clients in counseling, I have researched and discovered three first steps to stop the suffering of “shoulds”:

  1. Become poor in spirit. Kyle Miller’s Beatitude Trauma Model* taught me that I must first become poor in my spirit so that I can become rich in God’s Holy Spirit (Matthew 5:3 and John 3:30). One definition that helps me is from Charles Finney in 1844, “Being poor in spirit implies that we see in its true light the tendency in us to everything evil.”* I am not innocent. I have had my fair share in doing wrong to myself and to others. But admitting that makes me see my need for God even more. I will not always choose the right. But when I am poor in spirit I then recognize that I need help. I need God.
  2. Mourn out your pain and hurt to God. I do this when I take walks. Walking gives me time to escape the noise of life and to get deep into my thoughts. As I go deeper I find myself many times crying to God for comfort.  And the more I have done this, the more I feel comfort from God and also answers to my problems and prayers.   

  3. Allow God to take that pain and receive his comfort inside of you. Go to God as you acknowledge those hurts from your past. Also, the more we do this with Him, the more Christ can comfort us and then He can comfort others through us!  Second Corinthians 1:3-4 says, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Receiving comfort starts out very hard and feels foreign or impossible. We often feel we do not deserve it and that we must stay in our pain as punishment or penitence.  But that’s not true! That is why I stress that you must choose in faith in God to receive it! Do not just acknowledge it exists, but soak it in and receive it for yourself.

Unless you change your thinking, the suffering of shoulds will keep you and block you from learning and living out your purpose in life. It wasn’t until I began allowing God to take my pain and comfort my soul that I began to be able to be a culture changer. Since then I have completed a master’s degree in counseling, become a therapist for survivors of trafficking, educated hundreds of people about human trafficking, worked to change laws, and encouraged all who struggle with pain from their past. I have loved the opportunity to spread hope in this way. Get past those walls of pain and get unstuck from the suffering of your shoulds. Do whatever you are willing to do each day to make changes – it will not be easy or quick –because pursuing real change takes dedication. But as you do, you will feel more and more free, clear, and forgiving, and experience true peace and power.

* Beatitude Trauma Model Training for Sex Trafficking Ministry Workers, 2016 by Kyle Miller of Global Care & Response.

* Finney, Charles. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Retrieved December 2016 from gospeltruth.net/1844OE/441204_poor_in_spirit.htm

Toni McKinley is the founder and president of Crowns of Hope, a licensed counselor, mother of four, speaker/teacher, and a survivor of trafficking. She counsels survivors of trafficking and their families for no charge so they can have the opportunities needed for healing in order to live the purpose God has for them. She has a passion and desire for all to heal from trauma so they can experience the love that Christ has for them.