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The Supposed To’s: Don’t Let Them Crush You

Each of us is some combination of the following: person, sibling, child, friend, partner, parent. We play many roles and with each comes its own set of “Supposed To’s” – those expectations we feel we are supposed to be or do based on externally imposed standards that we internalize. Intentional subtraction of these energy consuming Supposed To’s is critical in the Cram it all in Years, when trying to be everything to everyone and do all the things feels impossible when also juggling intense professional demands.


We have what has been described as an ‘actual’ self and an ‘ought’ self*. The ‘ought’ self is made up of ideas about our duties, responsibilities, and obligations—how we believe we are supposed to be. Discrepancies between how we perceive ourselves now, our ‘actual’ self, and this ‘ought’ self can trigger feelings of guilt and shame, as well as depression and anxiety. We cultivate our sense of ‘ought’ self and corresponding Supposed To’s from internalizing messages from family and social influences, including media, and deeply historical, cultural ideas about gender and the role it plays in parenthood. When we have unachievable and even masochistic models of parenthood, or similarly unachievable expectations from others surrounding us, they seep in and seem normal, and we actually believe we are doing wrong by not living up to them. Guilt, frustration and exhaustion results: it is a form of self-punishment that drains us of energy and joy.

*Note: see Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: a theory relating self and affect. Psychological review94(3), 319.

What To Do (Bites)

  1. Identify your Supposed To’s, i.e. “See Them”

    In our session, we devoted time to bringing consciousness to your Supposed To’s. You probably created a great list, especially in conversation with your session partners.

    If you want to revisit, expand your list or you’re ready to add more, we suggest you give yourself some time to simply list more Supposed To’s. Having had the concept embedded, you’ll be able to see them more clearly. And, because so many of our imperatives live slightly below consciousness, they’re relatively accessible.

    As you move through a typical day, scan your mind for thoughts about what needs to be done, and further scan for which of these have a “should” behind them (“I want to play with my kid but I should cut his nails instead, I want to heat up tortellini but I should make something healthier”). Pay attention – a feeling of tension in your body when you encounter these thoughts is a possible sign that you’re in “Supposed To” territory. Write down everything that comes up, even if it sounds unimportant. It’s amazing how the most minor decisions and actions can become loaded with “supposed to” energy.

    Bringing your Supposed To’s out into full awareness is a profound step because a lot of this has been ticking away internally without your realizing that you’re experiencing intense pressure to conform your behavior to a potentially rigid standard.

    Seeing your list will allow you to take a real look at how you’ve been functioning and may even on its own relieve some of the pressure of carrying these Supposed To’s around without seeing them clearly.

  2. Investigate the fears underpinning your Supposed To’s

    Next, it’s time to question the beliefs that underpin your list in the first place.

    Often they’re driven by perfectionism is the well-intentioned grandparent of Supposed To’s: the tendency to strive toward unattainable ideals, even if it comes at an exhausting cost.

    There are often unconscious beliefs driving perfectionism: that one will be a failure, that one won’t be loved, that one will be negatively judged, that something terrible will result if we don’t live up to these high standards.

    We can tell you that falling short of these standards is not failure and does not make you a bad person, parent, family member or friend, but that’s not easy to take in at an emotional level. It can help to actually name the fears—this isn’t easy and it runs deep. Take a breath and as you move through each Supposed To, ask yourself what the “or else what” is for you. Will I not be seen as a good parent by my friends? Will my partner be disappointed in me and leave me? Will I be laughed at? Will I be judged as not caring enough? Will everyone see how incompetent I feel sometimes?”

  3. Try options that go beyond all the way to “strike” completely (S.E.T.S.)

    Now that you’ve got some of the emotional data about your Supposed To’s, you’ve got the base you need to try out decreasing your load.

    Scan your list and evaluate. What was the original intention behind each Supposed To? Do you still value the intention or is your Supposed To mostly driven by fear of not measuring up to an ‘ought’ self? Does it interfere with more important priorities?

    There will be easy ones to stick to because they don’t take much out of you, e.g. buying gifts for your partner’s family, and there will be ones that are more arduous, e.g. “I’m here for my extended family as the problem solver.” For those that don’t weigh on you, leave them. For those that are draining you, consider what it would mean to subtract this obligation off your list.

    If you can’t imagine striking (S.) it entirely, consider reducing your Energy (E), reducing your Time spent (T) or Substituting Out (S.) to someone or something else.

    Reducing energy and time are “half way” strategies — the delightful stepchild of perfectionism. By revising your Supposed To with a good-enough replacement (e.g., “I’m sometimes willing to problem solve with my family members when I have the time, or I can try to steer them in the right direction without taking on the whole shebang.”) are good options.

    Then you’ll need to practice, practice, practice. Your Supposed To’s have been with you a long, long time, and some will take time to quiet. You may need evidence that you can still be and feel successful even without the tension and pressure of all of your Supposed To’s, and this will only come with watching yourself in action, and feeling your various successes in spite of your purged Supposed To’s. Remember that the aim is not to suddenly be without goals or standards, but to soften their rigidity and their hold on your daily life.


  1. Socialize your list. You’ve already seen and heard other Supposed To’s during The Sophia Project session. If there are other folks you feel comfortable with, compare Supposed To notes with them. Because our Supposed To’s are so deeply ingrained and integrated with our sense of self, they are often invisible to us. Run your list by someone else and listen to their list. You may be able to identify a few more that you relate to but weren’t aware of, and you may do the same for them.

  2. Name the fears bravely. As you move through this exercise, you might find yourself backing away from really articulating the fear, especially if it’s one that seems ridiculous when you shine a light on it. You may even find yourself denying that it exists because it doesn’t make rational sense to you (e.g., “why would I think that my kid won’t love me if I’m not the one to drive her to practice every single day?”). If you can push yourself to name the fears—as irrational as they may be—you’ll be able to know yourself more fully and be more of a collaborator with your Supposed To’s than their victim.

  3. Who is doing the judging? As you consider striking off and half-waying your Supposed To’s, you might find a powerful judgment creeping in. It is likely your judgment of yourself, sometimes masquerading as others’ judgments (sure, others may actually be judging you, but our guess is that your self-judgments are way more brutal). Think back to the fears you listed earlier, consider your commitment to releasing yourself from guilt, and proceed.


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