Four Steps to Loosen the Grip of “Supposed-Tos”

by | Nov 6, 2014

To clap, or not to clap. That is the question.

Mike and I attended opening night at the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. The newly renovated Maryland Hall was filled with expectant energy. They really did sound amazing! They must have used something akin to the Graham Slee HiFi equipment. The program opened with a selection by Handel in five movements. The convention is to applaud when the piece ends but not between movements, but frequently a novice symphony-goer will miss the cues and enthusiastically clap – once – before realizing their error. And so it was that between each movement an awkward pause hung in the air as we collectively held our breath to see if anyone clapped when they’re not supposed to. …ahh, there it is again, a “supposed to.”

To clap or not to clap is a cultural norm that guides group behavior but this small example caused me to recognize the power of self-imposed supposed-tos. For example, during the concert another supposed-to surfaced. I tell myself that I’m supposed to love classical music (my band director father always touted the value of classical music) – it’s part of who I am, or so the story goes. But I realize halfway through the concert that I wasn’t loving it. To the conductor’s credit – he doesn’t select the same ‘ole, same ‘ole classical music. He played music by composers that aren’t readily recognizable (Manuel de Falla and Carl Nielsen). It’s just that I like a smidgen of the same ‘ole. I tell myself that I’m supposed to love classical music but really, I love popcorn classical – the stuff I grew up with as background music to the Roadrunner. You know the music. It crescendos as roadrunner zips across the desert floor. Cymbals crash as the Acme box falls from nowhere on Wile E. Coyote. Yep. That’s the classical music I really love. I can admit it only when I leave the supposed tos behind.

Over time I learned to recognize when I’m in the grip of a supposed-to. They grip you at any moment and in situations far more consequential than a symphony concert. Managing my office, I was supposed to apply all policies the same for everyone. With my family, a good daughter was supposed to live close to my mom and have kids. The supposed-to rules stuck to me as like sticker burrs in shoe laces. It’s not just me. You have your own rules…I know you do….we all do. Those rules don’t always serve our best interest. Here are four steps to loosen the grip of the supposed-tos.

1. Recognize the rule. There are tell-tale signs that you are caught in the grip of a supposed-to. An internal debate churns inside as you rationalize the “right” answer. In short, you over-think it. The nagging feeling signals that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The supposed-to has become a rule. What’s the rule? I remember struggling with a personnel decision with staff in my office. The “rule” in my head was that I had to handle this situation the same as I did for a different employee. Everyone must be treated the same – that was the supposed-to. But it didn’t feel right in this case. This person was different from the other person from their work ethic, experience, and job responsibilities. The “rule” created a gnawing feeling inside.

2. Recognize the source of the rule. Whose rule is it anyway? Was the supposed-to created from a belief system you were taught, absorbed from subtle clues you were raised with (I should live near my parents and have kids) or manufactured (everyone must be treated the same) in your mind? To know the source of the rule can help free the grip it holds. It probably was never your rule in the first place. Such is the power of a supposed-to.

3. Supposed-tos are optional. All those old rules you created or were taught are optional if they don’t sync with who you are now. You gave them the power they have over you. You created them in your mind. You can uncreate them. For years I struggled with the rule that I was supposed to have children. It came from indirect family and community norms. I still remember the moment I realized that having children was a choice. It was an optional rule and I opted out.

4. Write a new rule. Take the old rule and re-write it to fit you, your values and the situation. I discarded the supposed-to that one-size-fits-all for professional staff. Yes, consistency is important and so is flexibility. The new rule in my head is to be appropriately fair when applying an office policy so that excellent employees are accommodated differently than undependable employees.

What about you? Can you identify the supposed-tos in your life that generate that internal debate? The fact that a rule creates uncomfortable feelings is a clue that it doesn’t fit you. Those old rules are probably not yours. Loosen its grip and rewrite it into a version that is authentic for you. There’s no need to live with those old supposed-tos.

The End. (You can clap now.)


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

Recommended Reading

Leadership Insights Newsletter with Shelley Row

Get stories on leadership, decision-making, and personal & professional development.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Featured Blog Posts

Get a Free Copy of

The Handbook for Technical Leaders

Ten Top Skills for Managers