Do You Like Being Told What to Do?

Many of us seek guidance in our every day lives. While we would sometimes prefer that tough decisions be made for us by others, few of us ever enjoy being told what to do.

Take a moment and think about the last time somebody told you what you should do.

  • “You should do more around the house.”
  • “You should go to the gym.”
  • “You should be more organized.”

Do you remember how you responded?

There may be some truth in these kinds of “should” statements. We might even agree with them! And yet, it generally doesn’t feel very good to hear them from someone else. Being told what we should do can leave us feeling more judged and rebellious, and less motivated to make change.

And yet, how often do we say these sorts of things to ourselves? How often do we tell ourselves what we should be doing, and then feel confused and frustrated about why we aren’t doing it?

When we tell ourselves we should do something and then don’t, we feel guilty and ashamed. Guilt and shame are, not surprisingly, poor motivators.

So…is it possible to make change without feeling like we are telling ourselves what to do?

Here is one process that can help:

  1. Spend a few minutes or a few days tracking how many times you tell yourself you “should” do something. You might want to jot your thoughts down on paper or on your phone.
  2. Choose one of your “should” thoughts (e.g., “I should be more organized”) to start.
  3. Reword the thought in the following way: I would like to _______________ (e.g., “I would like to be more organized”).
  4. Check in with yourself to see if this reworded thought is accurate. Would you really like to become more organized? Or is it something you want to want? Is it something somebody else wants for you?
  5. If you were you achieve this goal, how would your life be different?
    • What might you gain?
    • What might you lose
  6. What are the barriers getting in the way of what you would like to be doing?

As you begin to identify, re-frame, and break down your “should” thoughts, you will gain clarity on the choices you are making that help or hinder what you would like to accomplish. The more clear you become on what you are choosing rather than getting stuck in what you should be choosing, the more you will pave the way to change.

Learning to make changes in our lives without feeling like we are telling ourselves what to do can be a challenging process. Ultimately, there is no should…there is only choice.

Self-Compassion: Learning to be gentle with yourself 

“In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.”
Robert Kiyosaki

  •  “Why did I do that?”
  • “I’m so stupid!”
  • “I should have known better!”

Maybe these are things you’ve said to yourself or heard friends say to themselves. Often these thoughts feel like truths and we punish ourselves accordingly; but these thoughts generally come from a part of ourselves that is feeling scared and vulnerable and may be an attempt to protect ourselves.  While we tell ourselves that these thoughts help us to try harder, more commonly they erode our confidence and make us scared of taking chances and making mistakes; yet as the quote at the beginning says, mistakes are necessary for learning and growing.

So how to help soothe and transform these judging, scared parts so we have more room to learn and grow?

One way to start is to rephrase these thoughts using language such as A part of me…. E.g. A part of me is feeling anxious. This thought is not all you are, but simply one part of you.


Sit or lay down comfortably, place a hand on your stomach and take a few deep breaths so you can feel your stomach press into your hand. Let yourself settle. Think of a common judging thought you have towards yourself. (E.g. I’m so stupid!) Repeat it to yourself a few times. Take a moment to notice any changes to your body. Are you noticing any tension? Are there any thoughts or emotions that are coming to your attention? How familiar are these sensations? How comfortable are you staying with these sensations?

Now instead of letting this thought take over or trying to push away the thought, try rephrasing it. E.g. A part of me is feeling stupid.. Let your attention move back to your breathing as you repeat your rephrased thought to yourself. Again take a moment to notice any changes to your body. Are you noticing any variation in tension? Are there any thoughts or emotions that are coming to your attention?

Sometimes it can help to write down some of your more common thoughts and then rephrase them and read them back to yourself. Practicing self-compassion techniques can help to manage stress, anxiety, negative perfectionism, low self-esteem, and depression.

Benefits of Practicing being Present-Focused

TedTalk by Andy Puddicombe on the benefits of being present-focused.

Uncertainty Quote

Uncertainty is the only Certainty

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.

Mindfulness Quote

Mindfulness Quote

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it was different.

Nothing Either Good or Bad Quote

There is Nothing Either Good or Bad


There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

Slow Breathing

Slow breathing is like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm….

2 Mindfulness Tools to Train Your Mind

If you aren’t practicing mindfulness… are practicing reactivity – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Do you ever have those moments of driving somewhere and when you arrive at your destination you can’t remember how you got there? It can be an unsettling sensation! The tendency for our minds to get lost in memories, regrets, daydreams and worries can keep us from being able to stay focused on the here and now. This backward and forward focus is often associated with anxiety and depression.

Our minds can be like unruly puppies and just like a puppy our minds require steady, patient training to learn new ways of behaving.

So what to do?

One approach for training our minds to be more present-focused is mindfulness. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.

Here are a two mindfulness approaches you can try:

  • Guided relaxation: having a regular guided relaxation practice can help to train the mind to keep focused on the script. There are lots of great guided relaxations on the web. You can also download a 15 minute guided relaxation mp3 that I created.
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: focusing on the inhale and exhale is another way to keep our attention in the here and now. Breath2Relax is a free app that can help with this practice.

The Dangers of Positive Thinking

Google ‘books on positive thinking’ and you’ll get pages of results. In fact, the ‘power of positive thinking’ is such a strong belief in pop psychology that challenging it can seem heretical. Yet put in another way, if we are feeling sad, scared or, anxious but tell ourselves we just need to think positively to get rid of those feelings, we are denying the reality of our experience and telling ourselves it’s not okay to feel the way we feel.  The more we deny the reality of our experiences and emotions, the more disconnected we become from ourselves.

Feeling difficult emotions or anxiety is certainly not very comfortable, so no wonder there is a desire to push the experience away. Positive thinking seems to promise an escape from this discomfort, if only we can get the positive thinking right! Yet a 2009 study from the University of Waterloo found that for depressed people positive affirmations resulted in many participants feeling worse.

Instead of ignoring our emotions through positive thinking or becoming stuck and overwhelmed by them, there is a middle ground of managing the discomfort of thoughts and emotions, without needing to disconnect from our experience.

One way to do this is to increase your ability to ‘sit with’ uncomfortable sensations, emotions and thoughts without reacting to them. Part of developing this ability involves being curious rather than judgemental towards our experiences.

For example:

  • Judgmental: “I shouldn’t be so upset by what she said! I’m such a crybaby!”
  • Curious: “wow, I’m feeling really hurt by what she said, I wonder what is going on for me that I’m having this sort of reaction?”

Do you notice yourself having different reactions to the two examples?

Ways of learning to manage difficult thoughts and emotions:

  • Practices such as meditation, yoga or tai chi
  • Mindfulness practices such as focused breathing
  • Books such as Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg

What has your experience been with positive thinking?

How is your Breath Effecting You?

Breathing is a funny thing, we’ve been doing it since we were born and generally don’t think much about it. But in terms of anxiety management, gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanics and role of the breath is extremely useful. Jon Kabat-Zinn related that in a survey of several hundred patients who had completed a stress reduction program, the majority rated ‘the breathing’ as the single most important thing they learned.

Here is a little experiment:

Either sitting up straight or standing, place one hand on your upper chest and one hand on your stomach.  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth 3x. Notice if either of your hands moves more than the other with your inhales and exhales.

If you notice one hand moving more than the other, try adjusting your breath to get the other hand to move more. See if you notice differences in the two breathing experiences.

If you notice the hand on your stomach moving the most you are likely doing more diaphragmatic or belly breathing which is associated with relaxation. If you notice the hand on your chest moving more you may be shallow breathing which is more associated with stress and vigilance.

Neither is good or bad, the different ways of breathing have different functions and different results. On a very basic level deeper, belly breathing correlates with the parasympathetic nervous system and gives the body signals to relax. Shallow, chest breathing correlates with the sympathetic nervous system getting us ready for fight, flight or freeze.

Learning to cultivate belly/diaphragmatic breathing is an important skill for anxiety management, helping us to tune into our bodies and decrease reactivity. Yet for many people with high anxiety focusing on breath can initially create more anxiety. This reaction isn’t that surprising given that in anxious states we are more prone to try to control things so attempting to let go of and experiment with our habitual way of breathing can at first feel uncomfortable, even scary.

If you are new to exploring your breath, it can be good to start slowly. You could try taking 3-5 belly breaths, like you did in the initial experiment, 1-2x a day for a couple of weeks. Don’t expect it to change right away, shifting breathing patterns take time, the muscles and nervous system need time to adjust.

If you find it too difficult to approach on your own talking to a yoga or meditation instructor, an anxiety counsellor, or some doctors can be helpful.

I would love to hear what your experience has been with breathe and anxiety management. Please feel free to comment below.