The shoulds. They are one of the worst mental traps that we fall into in. They often perpetuate our negative self-talk, guilt, shame, and so much more. I think that we would all be amazed if we were to count the number of times in a day that we say, “I should…” and then struggle with doing the thing we are telling ourselves we should do. This cycle of “the shoulds” is one of the most vicious internal cycles we all experience. We remind ourselves of all the things we think we should be doing, these things are often completely overwhelming, and then, because we are completely overwhelmed, we shut down. When we don’t do the things, we think we should be doing, we shame ourselves for being so unproductive or being a failure, which then leads to more internal reminders of all the things we should be doing.
If we paid close attention, I wonder how many times we all would catch ourselves saying something like the following:
“I should exercise more”
“I shouldn’t eat this; I should eat more of that”
“I should make that phone call”
“I should read more”
“I should get more sleep”
“I should really redo my resume”
“I should make an appointment with that doctor”
“I should find a new job”
“I should have that uncomfortable conversation I have been putting off”
“I should visit my family”
“I should clean the house”
“I should garden more”
“I should get my work done”
“I should write that book”
“I should get outside”
“I should talk about this difficult thing in therapy”
“I should start therapy”
I am honestly feeling my own anxiety rise just starting to create this list. My heart is racing, my brain is reeling, my guilt is building. I can’t tell you how often I get caught up in “the shoulds”. For the past year, I have thought each day about how I should write a post again. Somehow it has been a whole year since I have written a blog. Telling myself each day that “I should” and then feeling like I was failing myself never helped how I was feeling about myself, nor did it get me to sit down with my computer and fill an empty page.
When I reflect, I can rationally understand why I did not write a post or do many of the other things that fell through the cracks over the past 12 months. But it takes that deeper reflection, and being able to challenge my self-talk to get there. Telling myself that I have failed never helped but allowing myself permission to not do things and instead focus on what I needed to get done did.
One of the first things I reflect upon in addressing my own “shoulds” is thinking about how all that we have experienced over the past 2 years since the pandemic began has affected our energy levels, our emotional capacity, and our relationships in general. I have reminded myself that with the added stress of the pandemic, my threshold for where I could go, who I could see, and what I could accomplish was different than pre-pandemic times. I had to give myself grace that my to do list might not get fully done, and that lowering expectations of myself did not mean that I was settling. It instead meant that I have allowed myself to be realistic with myself and my own abilities.
Don’t get me wrong, I still might create long to do lists for myself at times, but I prioritize them by importance and due dates, and I celebrate all I am able to do and get done – big or small. I make sure I recognize the tasks I accomplish and try to focus more of my mental energy on those, as opposed to the rest of the list that still must get done. I always try to include things that I know I can do so that I give myself the ability to have even the smallest wins. Sometimes, getting out of bed on time, or reading for 10 minutes is enough and it helps with starting momentum or checking things off my list. I also allow for some things that are bigger challenges because sometimes accomplishing those tasks gives me more energy and pushes me to do bigger things. I also continue to be sure to not beat myself up when they are not done because I know they are bigger and might take more time.
When it comes to prioritizing, I try to ask myself a few questions. First – I ask myself “why is this a ‘should’ and is it a need or a want?” By asked myself, “is this something that needs to get done?” I can decide where on the list it goes. If it is a phone call I need to make for work that I have been putting off, I talk myself through how I will feel when it is done to try to change my energy around it. I assess how much time each task will take as well, and knowing it will be a quick task can help too. If it is a want, and not a need, then the task might have lower priority on my to do list. I am also honest with myself about what will make me feel better. If my “should” is “I should exercise” I try to talk myself through it being about my health – both physical and mental – and then set realistic expectations around that as well.
I also reflect on the root of “the shoulds” that I place on myself. Am I telling myself that I should do something because it is something I want to do, I need to do, or I think would be good for me? Or, instead, am I placing this pressure on myself because of outside influences? As many of my clients know, I have a love/hate relationship with social media, and this is a primary reason as to why. While social media has helped us to stay connected with people that we may never have been able to remain connected to, we also get caught up in the comparison game and often those comparisons are unhealthy. When we get lost in an endless scroll on social media, we are seeing the curated world that people are creating of their social media personas. These perfect posts lead to the comparison trap which then, in turn, leads us down the path of “the shoulds”. The problem is, these shoulds are not typically based upon our own wants and needs but instead on what we think we should be thinking, doing, feeling. Taking time to question the why behind our list of shoulds, can help us to let go of the unhealthy, unnecessary, and unrealistic shoulds we place on ourselves that are rooted in the comparison game and instead focus on things that will serve us.
And lastly and probably most importantly, I remind myself that I am not perfect, nothing is perfect, and no one is perfect. Because of this, nothing will ever be able to be perfectly done. Perfection is a trap and can be paralyzing at times. If I let go of my own pressures of perfection, I feel the grip of it releasing me to just be me. And that, is absolutely good enough for me.
I have been practicing therapy for 15 years and have worked with countless individuals, families and couples. While I do not want to claim to be an "expert" on all things therapy or life (because I always believe that there is room to grow and learn) I have noticed throughout my time connecting with my clients that similar struggles and repetitive patterns present themselves that affect how clients experience and see life. I wanted to take this experience with my clients and the knowledge I have gained and share it here, so that maybe it can touch others lives the way it has helped my clients.