If they gave out degrees for “shoulding,” I would have a PHD. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it looks something like this. You are washing dishes, your mind wandering, when out of nowhere this miserable sense of guilt washes through you. A thought materializes and will not let you go, dragging you down into a sinking feeling of inadequacy. And in your mind, these words form, “I should… (fill in your guilt trip here).

A Bad Case of the “Shouldings”

I recently made the decision to go from working a 40 hour week to working a 24 hour week. Why? Because my husband and I genuinely felt it was the best thing for me during this season of my life.

For the past few years, I have been working through some severe anxiety and frequent panic attacks. Unfortunately, my job is often triggering for me. The work environment is loud and over stimulating, causing me to consistently feel either shut down or overwhelmed. I would catch myself feeling dizzy, randomly hyperventilating, and was unable to calm down for hours. By the end of the day, I was coming home exhausted, unable to do anything except unwind or, failing at that, go into a full on panic attack.

At the same time, I had been craving purpose and meaning in my life. With work so exhausting, I had no time to pursue the things that actually mattered to me. I was shutting out people, experiences, and opportunities just to survive. But it left me feeling hopeless and isolated.

So I decided to start working three days a week and spend the other two days working on something I had wanted to do for ten years: freelance writing.

It was an exciting, but terrifying change.

It wasn’t the money that really scared me. Financially, my husband and I were sound. We could meet our expenses (with some scraping) and we had savings for the unexpected. What was terrifying was all of the “shoulds”.

I’m a young, healthy woman with no children, I should be able to handle a full-time job. I should be able to make time for my hobbies and dreams while working full time. I should be able to balance meaningful relationships and work. Most people can’t afford the luxury of working part-time and neither should you.

And on my inner dialog would go.

I was drowning in a bad case of “shoulding”. But after many conversations with my husband and with the support of my family, I was able to make the change.

My first week on a part-time schedule, I got sick. Like my head felt as if it was slowly being squeezed to death by mucus and it would pop like a balloon if someone so much as touched it kind of sick. I managed to drag myself to work, but those two days at home, guess how much writing got done? Next to none.

All those plans of settling down to write went instead to sleeping and watching Netflix. And of course, it’s my body, so I wasn’t just sick for a few days. Oh no, two weeks. Two awful weeks of throbbing headaches, coughing, sniffling, nasal irrigation, and painfully slow progress!

And the “shoulds” started all over again.

I should be able to work just as hard when I’m sick as when I’m healthy. It’s just a sinus infection. Everybody else just sucks it up and keeps going. I should too. I should be able to get better faster. I’m sure I am somehow prolonging this. I shouldn’t let being sick make me moody or steal my motivation. No, everyone else feels terrible and never complains. I should stop making such a big deal over everything.

Why Are We “Shoulding”

All this “shoulding” raises some questions. When did pushing through exhaustion, stress, and even bad health become such a badge of honor? When did taking care of yourself and doing what is best for your personal health and wellbeing become wimpy? When did acknowledging your own needs and allowing yourself time to heal emotionally or physically become a sign of weakness?

I wish the examples I gave were the worst of my “shoulding”. But “should” and I are very good friends. “Should” shows up whenever I need a good dose of feeling bad about my life.

I should be more giving with my time.

I should be a better friend to (random friend here). I haven’t asked them to hang out in weeks (nevermind that they haven’t asked me either. This is clearly my fault).

I should do something about world hunger, sex trafficking, refugees, the environment (fill in terrible, overwhelming world problem here)

I should exercise more. Those jiggly thighs won’t fix themselves.

I should clean the apartment more often. If we ever had guests over, they would be horrified.

I should read more. When’s the last time I learned something new? My mind will atrophy.

What is the result of all this “shoulding”? Does it actually push me to make a change? Well no. What it pushes me to do is feel terrible about myself, panic, and then feel utterly helpless. In the end, I actually find myself doing less rather than more. Which prompts a new round of “shoulds,” and the cycle begins again. All the “shoulds” just become overwhelming and paralyzing. And interestingly, that “should” my brain won’t shut up about, it’s rarely the thing I actually need.

What then is under that need to think in “shoulds”? For me, it’s a huge dose of insecurity. I’m insecure about what people will think of me. Insecure that I will still be valuable. Insecure that I’m possibly being selfish, weak, or emotional. But insecurity is not courage or strength last time I checked.

Stop the “Shoulding” Cycle

So how do we get over a bad case of “shoulding”? We need to ask ourselves better questions. Instead of, “what should I be doing”, try asking, “what do I really want and need here? What is most important to me? And what am I actually able to do about it?” Instead of wondering what everyone else thinks, expects, or wants from you, try focusing on what you think, expect, and want from yourself. Be honest about your capacity. And then make the real changes it will take to make it happen.

Maybe you really do want and need to spend more time focusing on friendships. That’s great! So figure out where that fits in. What are you willing to reorder or give up to make more time for the people in your life.

Or maybe you want to start exercising but honestly can’t find anything to give up so you can carve out some time. That’s great too. Really it is. All that means is that you are prioritizing other things in your life that are more important right now than exercise. And that’s okay. There will be other seasons where exercise will take a higher priority and you can give it your time. (Side note: That thing you don’t want to give up so you can exercise, that thing is totally allowed to be rest.)

It takes courage in this world to do what you know is honestly best for your needs, health, and wellbeing as an individual, as a couple, and as a family and not caring what naysayers will think. That is the kind of strength I want to have. And it’s why I’m done with “shoulding” and moving on to what is really best. Well, at least that’s what I should do.

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