I coached a client a while back who was struggling to find time for herself. She had a husband and thee young children and worked a full-time corporate job. Each day on her commute home she drove by a river with scenic banks and a beckoning gurgle. She imagined herself parking by the river and sitting quietly in her car, writing in her journal or simply decompressing from the day. The thought of taking ten or fifteen minutes to absorb the stillness before she headed home to her throng of active boys had lingered in her mind for years, but she’d never done it. She never dared take the extra few minutes. When I asked her why, she paused for a moment and then answered, “I guess I just thought I should get home as quickly as possible.”
After talking it through some more we decided that in the coming week, this mom was going to pick one day to stop on her way home and enjoy the river. Just one day. A small thing. But not such a small thing for this woman, who had gotten so caught up in the day to day rat race that she literally didn’t feel she had the time to stop for a breath of fresh air. That one day for her wasn't about how much she could write in her journal in ten minutes or even how much later she would get home because of the stop. It was about giving her permission to question the “shoulds” in her life and allowing herself, if it made sense, to come up with some new answers.
We spend so much of our time and energy adhering to the “shoulds.” I should wake up earlier, I should read more to my kids, I should finish that house project, prepare better meals, be more organized and go to bed earlier. Is the word “should” ever followed by a task we actually want to do? Is it ever followed by something that gives us more energy, more joy, more contentment? I suppose sometimes I say I should work out more, and when I work out I do tend to feel better. But often I find if any task has gotten to the “should” stage, I’m feeling overwhelmed enough that even positive activities begin to feel like chores that sap my energy and drain my morale.
What if we eliminated the word “should” from our vocabulary? What if we dared to entertain a new set of thoughts that help us look at the “shoulds” from a different perspective? What if, instead of saying “I should…” we dared to ask:
What matters to me? How can I make my actions reflect that today?
What one small change can I make today that might make my life more manageable tomorrow?
Who is determining the “shoulds” in my life? Am I taking ownership of my own decisions? How can I do that without guilt, justification, or excuse?
Personally, admonishing myself with “shoulds” typically doesn’t bring about the lasting change I’m wanting in those moments. It could be argued that I should wake up earlier to make the mornings run more smoothly, but unless I do the hard work of determining why that’s important and internalize early mornings as a value, I’m not likely to maintain any new early wake-up routines.
I want to get to the point where I don’t have to beat myself with a “should” because I already am. I am waking earlier, spending the time with my kids that I want to, and finishing the projects I start. And I know that when I am doing the things I once told myself I should be doing, then my values and my actions are in alignment. I’m not saying it’s easy to get there, only that the destination is a noble undertaking. I’ve had enough of “should.” I’m ready to move on to “I am.”