I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the word “should” lately. I’ve done a lot of rumbling with it in the nearly two years since d-day. Early on I came to the realization that it was a “bad" word best removed from my vocabulary. Should is a whole lot of judgement disguised as motivation. Should is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It pretends to be interested in bettering ourselves, but really, it is a bold underlining of all the places we believe we lack; all the places where we don’t measure up; all the times someone told us we weren’t enough and we bought it. Should is the leather belt in the hands of our inner parent “motivating” us to do better. Should is our inner critic’s open-handed slap to our face when we believe we’ve missed the mark, when we should have seen the signs, when we should have been thinner/younger/sexier/cooked more dinners/fill in the blank. Should is a bunch of bullshit.
Should is about fitting in, not rocking the boat, not making people uncomfortable and not being true to ourselves. It’s about keeping silent. It’s about shame. It’s a single track, downhill ride to pain and loneliness. It took me a long time to realize this. I had been a poster child for the dangers and self-destruction of perfectionism since my teens. It’s what happens when you grow up with an alcoholic (or in any other dysfunctional family system for that matter). My inner critic was brutal. Nothing I did was good enough. Ever. I was apologetic for my existence, for taking up space. And when I tried and didn’t get the response I expected, I was devastated. Imagine, struggling with depression at 16 and your own father asks you what they did wrong. The clear implication was that something was wrong with me. I was inherently wrong. My inner critic has a mean left.
Post d-day, lots of lessons started coming my way around judgement. One was that the inner critic was an asshole who had sucked the joy from my life for too long and I should dump her. Another was that I could be a lot nicer to myself about successes and also not successes. One of the biggest was that I drop the word “should” and replace it with “could”. Should is a requirement that comes packed with judgement and topped with a set-up for failure. Could is a free choice with no expectations and no losers. There are big shoulds and little insidious shoulds that crop up in our lives. Learning to notice them is the first step to becoming a recovering should-aholic.
The other day I got a message from my daughter, away at college. “Mom, can I tell you something awesome that happened to me?” Yes, of course. She had left her laundry in the laundry room in her dorm for a full day. Had completely forgotten about it. She went to retrieve it, expecting to see it scattered, gone or dumped on the floor. Instead, she found it folded neatly on top of the dryer. Even the socks had been matched up. How lovely! She felt so grateful. The first words out of my mouth were, “Oh that’s so great! You should write a thank-you note.” Well…there was a group chat for the floor but she wasn’t sure she wanted to say anything since it might embarrass the person. I pushed the idea of a note again. It’s less public so they’d still get it but it wouldn’t be out on social media. I felt my daughter’s anxiety rising. And…I realized I was laying a big, fat, old “should” on her. And I said, “Hold on a sec.” And I thought about it. I was creating that anxiety. There was no reason she had to write that thank-you note. It was me taking a wonderful experience and turning it into a situation where she had to do or be more. Ouch. So I backtracked and said, “You know what? You don’t need to write a thank-you note. The only thing you need to do is enjoy feeling grateful.” That’s it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a thank-you note. But there was no need or requirement for it either. I was stunned at how slick my own “should” was at sliding itself in there. And how easy it is to pass on the “do more, be more” message.
A “should” is all the things we’ve ever heard or been taught about how we don’t measure up. It’s the world’s sneaky, gigantic countermove trying to keep us from who we are. When you move away from should, you move toward yourself. When you start to let go of all the shoulds (I should be a better mom, wife, daughter, friend, artist, writer, manager, leader. I should be smarter. I should be thinner, prettier, sexier, stronger, faster. I should be better with money. I should be able to remember names. I should have known. I should have done this differently. Whatever your personal list of “shoulds” are) you make room for a whole lot of love and acceptance. Then you have two hands free to hang on to yourself.