A Dirty Word
Don't worry, it's not 'moist'
There is a single six-letter word that causes me a great deal of suffering. It is a thief; it robs me of joy, focus, presence. It transforms sources of pleasure and excitement into fountains of dread and aversion. Left unchecked, this word has the ability to turn days, weeks, years and, eventually, a lifetime into a maddening game of mental tennis in which the ball constantly bounces back and forth between fear and restless striving.
I should read more. I should wake up earlier. I shouldn’t eat sugar. I should be more knowledgeable. I shouldn’t drink so much. I shouldn’t be on my phone. I shouldn’t have my laptop in my room. I should cook more. I should be more mature. I should clean Duke’s bowls. I should write. I should call my parents. I should learn to build a house. I should spend less money. I should unload the dishwasher. I should be a better person.
These are all worthy aspirations, to be sure. The voice behind the Shoulds has a pretty good pulse on the kinds of habits that will reliably improve my life. When they come from a healthy place, in moderation, these prompted reorientations work well at serving their intended evolutionary purpose: growth and progress.
But when the Shoulds come from the wrong place, they have the opposite effect. They take on a different flavor. Rather than serving as an actionable drive toward self-development, the Shoulds become a paralyzing force that clouds every moment with feelings of helpless agitation and existential guilt. The result is a sort of purgatory of fear where I am neither living in the present moment nor doing any useful thinking about the past or future. There is no growth or progress in this state — only discontent.
In this state, sources of joy become corrupted. Reading, for instance, goes from a fulfilling activity to a wellspring of guilt for not doing it more often. In a cruel twist of irony, the guilt makes reading virtually impossible, so it happens less often, which leads to more guilt. The vicious cycle continues, and the Shoulds get louder.
Interestingly, I’ve come to find that the nature of our Shoulds can contain some very useful data. My default response to my Shoulds has historically been reactive, submissive, and unquestioning; I have been a slave to them. I subconsciously comply with the healthy ones and become paralyzed by the unhealthy ones, none the wiser about where they’re coming from or what information they might hold. However, as I’ve started to consciously examine this phenomenon, I’ve had some rather impactful observations.
Whether or not the Shoulds are coming from a healthy place seems to hinge on the axis of self-acceptance. When I feel comfortable with who I am and how I’m living, a Should is simply a useful suggestion: Yeah, I probably should call my parents. That’s a good idea. I’m going to do that. However, when my sense of self is shaky, the Shoulds become an indictment of my identity: I should call my parents. I haven’t called them in a week. What kind of shitty son am I? I’ve also been staying up too late. And I have eaten out every day this week. What’s wrong with me?
When the Shoulds cause me to spin out into a self-flagellating narrative like this rather than taking any meaningful action, it’s usually one of two things. Sometimes, it’s an important indicator that I’m not acting and living in accordance with my own values. I am falling short of my own standards, and it’s causing me to feel an all-encompassing sense of guilt. This tells me that I need to get to the source to see where I’m missing the mark and then course-correct. Other times, the narrative is a sign of a baseless and unwarranted lack of self-acceptance. In this case, I need to work to understand why I’m feeling this way and then address the root cause appropriately. Either way, the information is powerful and allows me to proactively address fundamental issues rather than continuing to fall victim to a misleading narrative.
This level of discernment ultimately gives me the last word over my Shoulds. When I understand where they’re coming from and whether they need to be questioned further, I gain the agency required to get the most out of the healthy ones and continue to grow while avoiding being beholden to the unhealthy ones and living from a place of fear, guilt, and inadequacy.
We all stand to benefit from a deeper understanding of our Shoulds. The only way to get to this information is to examine them to understand what they’re really telling us. Where are they coming from? Do they have a pattern? Are they pointing you in a useful direction, or do they need to be questioned further? This level of conscious analysis will help you uncover the crucial truth. We all have a mix of healthy and unhealthy Shoulds, and they can have a multitude of origins, both internal and external. Our modern world, with its abundance of curated digital media, supplies us with an endless stream of messages about how we should live and who we should be. This makes it essential to question the nature of our Shoulds so that we can gain control over them — not the other way around. Only then can we have agency over our lives and aspire toward our highest selves.
Listen to your Shoulds. And sometimes, tell them to go to hell.