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  • Writer's pictureMia

Looks Like Someone's Got A Case of the Shoulds


This is for all the perfectionists out there.

Should is bullshit.

We all talk endlessly about what we should be doing. We love to tell other people what they should be doing. Every time someone tells me what I *should* do, I feel like they *should* probably fuck off.

Should is annoying when it's advice to someone else. But it's self-abuse when it's an admonishment to yourself.

Is any of this familiar?

"I should go to the gym more."

"I should do more research at work."

"I should spend more time with my kids."

"We should be having more sex."

"I should be cooking all our meals."

"I should be giving back to the community."

"I should see my parents more often."

"I should be doing more about climate change."

The Shoulds are rough. I know them well. I want to be better at literally everything. I want to learn everything. I want to have every answer and be an expert in every field. Should should should. Abuse abuse abuse.

Should is self-abuse because you're chastising yourself for not doing something that you've already decided not to do. After all, if you were going to the gym regularly, there'd be no need to say that you intend to go to the gym regularly. Should is the way we justify a choice we've made many times over. The only problem is that we think might be a bad choice. So we all pretend that it's not definitive. It makes us feel better in the short term. "I might stop making this bad choice soon!!!!!" But in the long run, it discredits both the way you're spending the time as well as discrediting the choice itself. It makes it seem like what you're doing isn't valuable, and simultaneously, that your choice to do that thing was a bad one. It's a double whammy of self-loathing.


Should is a double whammy of self-loathing.


We all have to make decisions about time management. At some point, a hierarchy has to be created. This is when the Shoulds start. If you're constantly saying, "I should be cooking all my meals," and you're STILL not cooking all your meals, try something new: Let go of it entirely. Don't say it anymore. You've decided that you don't know how to cook; you don't have time to cook; or you plain old Do. Not. Want. To. Cook! These are all valid reasons to not cook your own meals. You have a guilt scab. Stop picking at it. Leave it alone. It will fall off by itself when it's ready.

(Um, if the above paragraph isn't for you and you do want to cook, I do know of a fantastic blog which occasionally puts up delicious meals that take five seconds to assemble.)

How? How does one simply stop feeling guilty about time management? Give this a try. Whatever your should is, say your should out loud right now. Go ahead. No one can hear you.

Now watch. I'm going to give you a demonstration with one of my own shoulds.

"Ugh. I should be reading so much more."

Oh god these are just two of the one thousand shelves in my house that look like this.

I say this to people all the time. My house is teeming with unread books. I hate being left out of literary conversations. It's annoying to have fifteen people tell me I MUST READ The Kiterunner/A Gentleman in Moscow/These Truths and I have to keep admitting that I haven't done it.

So I try on "I could" instead.

"I could be reading so much more."

What happens? There's a butt!

No, no, not that kind of butt. A but! There's an entire second half of a sentence waiting to be issued here. Everyone is on the edge of their seat waiting to know what the "but" is. The second half of my sentence is:

"I could be reading so much more, but I am writing a book like a boss bitch instead."

Translation: Writing a damn book takes time and if that means Jill Lepore has to wait a little longer then so be it. I am forgiven. I'm not a piece of shit, I'm just doing something else.

Let's try another one. I'm always sing-songing "I should stop watching so much reality tv." But I am still choosing to watch Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and America's Got Talent and The Voice and World of Dance and So You Think You Can Dance and Bachelor in Paradise and I can't lie, there are more but I'm getting embarrassed now. It's very clear that I've already made this decision. Why? Because I work hard in my job and I'm writing a book and papers and articles and talks in my free time. I'm exhausted. So when I've got the opportunity to enjoy some mindless entertainment, I take it. Besides, who could forgive themselves for missing this iconic tv moment?

With my reframe, it sounds more like this:

"I could stop watching so much reality tv, but it gives me a great mental health break from working all the time."

Well, shit. When you put it like that...

Every time I say, "I should stop watching so much reality tv," it utterly discredits my need for a mental health break. Furthermore, it fortifies the idea that I should be constantly working any time I'm awake. If I'm only satisfied with myself when I'm working around the clock, this is like a giant fuck you to the part of my brain that just wants a damn break. Worse, it actually regresses my mental health. And I get super mean when I go in the opposite direction. Super mean to other people and super mean to myself. Neither is good.

See how this goes for you. Switch your should sentence into a could sentence. See if the second half of the sentence immediately gets filled in for you.

"I could go to the gym more, but I'm in charge at work and shit has to get done."

"I could see my parents more often but flying to Minnesota isn't easy or cheap."

Using could instead of should changes the entire tone of the sentence. Rather than undermining your decisions, you're proactively making decisions to do something else. It's not that you're so swamped you can't do anything. It's not that you're incapable of doing anything. You've just chosen to spend time doing something else. So it's perfectly OK to say it out loud and accept what you've decided. Supporting your choices will take you a long way towards self-acceptance.


Make your choice, support your choice, and move on.


You won't always have a right answer or even a clear answer. But if you catch yourself constantly glossing over problems with "I should be..." try the "I could be..." method for a bit and see if it helps. I'm a huge proponent of 1) actively making decisions and then 2) accepting that decision as the one you made. You can always change your mind and make a new decision later. But making a choice and then refusing to accept responsibility for making it is just a dumpster fire for your brain and your self-esteem. Make your choice, accept your choice, and move on.

And yeah, sometimes we choose wrong. Ray summons the Stay Puft Marshmallow man, Walter picks the wrong Holy Grail. Sometimes we make the wrong choice, morph into the Cryptkeeper and then explode into a pile of dust. It's the risk that comes with making decisions. But you might as well have some courage about it.

He chose...poorly.

Fair warning, this conversation with yourself can go off the rails. Asking a "could" question provides its own answers, but sometimes those answers are unsettling. You might realize the second half of the sentence is something you don't want to hear. For example, "I could be doing more in my career, but I'm too scared to try."

Other times, the tough answers are related to family. This is a whole different enchilada. The Let It Go And Move On solution is great for helping to prioritize self-care but doesn't really apply for bigger emotional issues. I do not support your ignoring large emotional issues even though this is one of my favorite personal pastimes.

Still, I've found this to be an illuminating exercise for when I'm becoming overwhelmed and having difficulty knowing what to do next. Finding myself facedown in the shoulds is a recipe for mental disaster. I'm grumpy enough when I'm in a good mood. No need to wind myself into the middle of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Hope this helps you get a grip on yourself when you need a grip. Let me know how it goes for you!

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