I remember the first time I realized that the difference between should and could was far greater than a couple of letters. I was newly married, still in college, and it was time for me to choose my major.

I enjoyed math, so I listed some possibilities: I could teach math. I could be an engineer or physicist. I considered accounting, even though I didn’t think I fit the green eyeshade persona. I considered becoming an FBI auditor because I thought it would be cool to catch people laundering money. I had lots of coulds; I liked the feeling of choices. And, I didn’t approach this decision as serious or life threatening.

I wanted to include my husband in this fun exploration of choices. He said, “You should be an accountant.”

What happened to my fun “could” game? Suddenly, my choices were narrowed down considerably into one nonnegotiable should. He seemed so decisive and sure.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because accountants make good money, they are always in demand, and I majored in accounting.”

I couldn’t argue with his logic, but the word should just rubbed me the wrong way. “And why did you major in accounting?” I asked with a smart-ass look on my face.

“I chose accounting because my older brothers majored in accounting, and they said I should.”

“You didn’t choose your own college major?” My mind was trying to make sense of his answer. I could not grasp the concept of making a choice from other people’s shoulds.

Nevertheless, he was my husband; and I realized that accounting was on my could list; so I chose accounting, which made his should happy.

This philosophy worked most of the time, and we rarely experienced conflict. Usually, my very long list of coulds overlapped with his short list of shoulds like two mysterious intersecting lines in space.

But inevitable forces of time and pressure managed to create situations that had no common meeting point. At times, I felt sad that I didn’t get my first choice because it was not on his should list.

One time, we had an argument over whether I should greet him at the door when he came home. I saw it as a choice. If I happened to be near the door, I would greet him. But if I was not, he could come greet me. This made sense, but I would soon learn that shoulds don’t follow logical reasoning.

Another time, he attempted to convince me that I should agree to a precise minimum number of sexual interactions per week. Forget about spontaneity or love. His number was not on my could list. So I suggested that he hire a prostitute to make up the difference. My coulds were flexible and extensive. But I was not flexible about accepting a should that felt bad.

Why were his shoulds so inflexible? Turns out, it was not really his fault. Shoulds are always inflexible because we are not the creator of our shoulds.

Our true Self never demands that we should do anything. Shoulds exist in the false self’s world of beliefs. One false self passes their should viruses to other false selves, which keeps them alive and well.

Remember, my husband believed I should major in accounting because his brothers did. He thought I should greet him at the door because his mother did. I was quick to point out that he grew up in an 800 square foot house; so his mother was always near the door. But remember, should doesn’t follow logic. And shocking as it might be, his required sex minimum came from his priest.

Shoulds come from authority figures. Older siblings, parents, clergy, teachers, and people wearing uniforms are all superior to us in our young false minds. We are taught that roles, titles, education, certification, or age make one superior. Wisdom no longer makes one an authority because most people don’t know wisdom when they hear it. When we are little, we are trained to listen to authority without questioning them. Beliefs are sucked right into our young minds. The beliefs eventually become the voice of our own false self who demands obedience. We fear punishment or judgment if we don’t obey its shoulds. We think the voice is god when it is just a recording of all of the authority figures from our past.

Over time, my husband’s shoulds became louder and louder in my mind. I found myself honoring his voice to keep peace. I came to fear its judgment. I felt guilty if I even considered a choice that was not on the prescribed list. His voice slowly became my own false god who gave me orders twenty-four hours a day.

Those sweet, delicious coulds of my true Self were muted. I didn’t even want to hear any other choices because I became saddened at the thought of what I was missing.

The most bothersome part of this whole drama was that my husband was happy with his shoulds. He was taught to obey those shoulds from a young age. He was rewarded for following them. He grew up with people who followed the same list. He was trained, like most, to put outer reward ahead of inner freedom. He didn’t want to drop his shoulds because he felt superior to those who didn’t follow them. They were the bad people. His shoulds had payoffs that were too good to risk.

The ancient mystery schools taught that life appears to be a physical journey, but it is really a mental journey. The physical realm is merely the projection of our beliefs.

When we follow shoulds, we are obeying a recording that originally came from someone else's false self. Because of their authority or conviction, we accept their belief as true. The acceptance of the belief transports us out of the realm of pure potential into the realm of limitation. We always experience emotion when we travel down the road of limitation. If we slow down our thoughts and feel as our mind speaks a belief (or should), we will notice the emotion. The emotion is saying, “You are traveling the wrong way. Don’t listen to that voice. Turn around!” But rarely does someone slow down their thinking long enough to notice the emotion.

Shoulds always come laced with strong emotion. Those who follow shoulds either ignore the emotion or take it as a sign that the should is true.

Why would they do that? Because if we do what we think we should do, the related guilt stops. The false self is happy because we obeyed it. With enough training, our primary life goal becomes keeping the false self, and its creators, happy. Our heart’s desires then appear to be temptations instead of carrots to keep us on our path.

If we simply witness the emotion and gently remind ourselves that the should is wrong because it feels bad, the emotion will eventually dissipate; our mind will have newfound clarity, and a new choice will appear. It might be another should; but we can wash, rinse, and repeat until the whole mental stain is removed.

I did this exercise every time I heard my false god speak a should. I started to regain my old freedom. I started to like my mind again. My health improved, problems disappeared, and joy returned.

Having gone to should hell and back, I could no longer be manipulated into accepting any shoulds from even the highest authority. Those who say one should be heterosexual; that’s their should. Those who say everyone should be white; that would also be their should. Those who say people should be Christian or Muslim or Jew; they also have a serious should problem. They’ve all got a bad case of the shoulds. Shoulds cause us to impose our beliefs on others. They make us judgmental.

Our true Self doesn’t give a damn what we do. It only cares what we think. When our thinking comes from unconditional love and is open to all possibility, we could never harm another. In fact, all war and fighting comes from the idea that we should serve our country, our tribe, our religion, or our family. Pride, which is one of the seven deadly sins, is intimately connected to most shoulds.

Esoteric wisdom says it like this. Take away duality (two letters of sh) and replace them with one letter of unity (c), and you have a new perspective. Shoulds come from duality, good and evil, and the world of judgment. When we ignore shoulds, they disappear. They are illusory. Then we return to the true land of could, the world of potential, possibility, and creativity.

Author's Bio: 

Cathy Eck has a Ph.D. in esoteric studies. She is the founder of Gateway To Gold and her blog, http://gatewaytogold.com. Expanded versions of her articles are on her blog. She is passionate about cracking the code of life’s greatest mysteries and translating ancient wisdom into practical guidance. She mentors others who would like to turn their shoulds into coulds.