This article first appeared on Happify.com
For all our presumptuous beliefs about being totally in control of our lives, we live up to 90% of the time in the vast subconscious. Our thoughts and behaviors arise from the depths of an iceberg that channel our direction while we sit atop, unaware of the forces beneath us.
The subconscious is like a vast warehouse that holds our deepest and most cherished desires. It’s where our truest and most authentic self lives. Leaving it in charge can certainly be good for our happiness—but that is often not the case. The subconscious contains much more than the real us. From the moment we are born, everything that happens around us—overt, subtle or hidden from conscious realization—is thrown atop this self and stowed away in a haphazard fashion.
And here’s the problem. At the entry to this chaotic storeroom, stands a gatekeeper who is uninformed and disinterested. And as we charter our course in life, we turn to it for help, unaware that it rarely ventures deep into its territory. Instead it throws whatever belief or assumption is close by, and hopes we will go away.
Sadly, we often do. And when we do, we begin, slowly but surely, to live in a world of “Shoulds”. It is the world of uninformed beliefs, of societal expectations and of other people’s unlived dreams. Its journey can be deceivingly smooth, but its rewards bring us little lasting fulfillment.
“Musts” are different. Must is that true self that lives hidden in the chaos of the warehouse. But the more we live a life of Shoulds, the more we silence and stifle it. But it does not go away. For Must is our deepest-held urges and desires, an inner calling that willingly embraces a life of hard work in return for the rapture of truly being alive.
So how do we connect to this Must? How do we peel the layers of Shoulds that hide who we are? The short answer is by getting the gatekeeper to dig deeper. The longer answer is by bringing greater awareness to our reactions and consciously understanding the fears and impulses that drive our behaviors.
Know Your Shoulds
This is really hard, and often something we spend the entirety of our lives running away from. As T.S. Eliot once said, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction—filled with fancies and empty of meaning”. To listen in, we need self-compassion and non-judgment. Traditional practices like mindfulness help us face our primal fears that show up as Shoulds and develop the mental strength to find a way beyond them.
Fall in Love With Yourself
…and no, this does not mean in some narcissistic way! There are enough of us (and rising) who imagine ourselves to be more than we are, masking a gnawing sense of self-doubt. Falling in love with ourselves is about knowing our true worth and respecting our convictions, passions and deepest-held urges. Nothing points us towards them more than frequent and positive walks down memory lane. What experience makes you genuinely happy? Using which strengths makes you come alive?
Embrace All of Yourself—Even the Dark Parts
It’s strange that the very people (yes, ourselves!) that we should know better than anyone else are the people we know the least about. We imagine ourselves to be more than we are, or we dislike ourselves and reject what we find. The reality is that none of us is all bright or all dark. Author and educator Parker Palmer calls this an “inner wholeness,” explaining that wholeness “does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life”. It is the only way to live with opposing truths and bring our full selves to life.
The road to our Must is not a bed of roses. In fact, it’s strewn with difficult choices. And the only way to stay on course is to believe in our journey. This takes passion, but it also takes vulnerability, because there are no guarantees. True vulnerability lies in offering ourselves to the world, to what Joseph Campbell calls “the experience of being alive” and in taking risks on its behalf. It is the only way of calming the self-doubt that arises with vulnerability and of gently dismissing it as what yoga experts Ed and Deb Shapiro call “the weapon of the ego”.
Must is the life force within us. As such, choosing it is the greatest thing we can do for ourselves. But it is also a responsibility we carry towards the world around us. We need to be faithful to the sweet spot between our unique gifts and the needs and opportunities we see around us, so that we can contribute meaningfully with the best of what we have to offer. Otherwise, we can spend our lives justifying why we could not light our fire—and face the regret of an unlived life in our final days.
Living as the most authentic expression of ourselves imbues our lives with meaning and achieves the greatest human desire—that to live on even after we die. Whereas Shoulds are weak, impulsive and short sighted, our Must is what allows us to see ourselves as part of a larger humanity and belong to something much larger than our self.