It’s conventional wisdom by now that we, people attempting to live full and sincere lives, should (!) stop paying attention to “should”s.
I should be doing something productive right now.
I should just get over it.
I should avoid talking about these things in public.
Shoulds are about shame. I should be doing something productive because to need and take rest is shameful. I should just get over it because to take time and space to sit in my pain is shameful. I should avoid talking about these things in public because sharing my deepest thoughts and feelings is shameful. (The last one comes with what-ifs, which are arguably more powerful than shoulds: What if someone’s feelings are hurt? What if someone doesn’t like it and therefore doesn’t like me?)
I’ve spent significant time in my wonderful therapist’s office in the last several years working on shedding my shoulds. This is not easy work for me because of a cocktail that includes anxiety and people-pleasing and Enneagram-6-ness, and I’ve still got work to do on the what-ifs in particular. But honestly, it’s going well! I’m much more likely to find myself ignoring a should these days than I was a few years ago.
As a quick aside, this is definitely a direct result of my time with my therapist, which was its own should I had to get over: I should be able to handle this without help. With prayer, maybe, or with a more positive attitude. It’s the day after World Mental Health Day and I want to let anyone reading this know that therapy is great and not a sign of weakness—in fact, like I said, it is actually work, and it has helped me tremendously and God does not mind if you need it. God has given a lot of people very particular skills and strengths that make them great therapists!
But on the other side of that work is the prospect that, if you don’t have to listen to a should, you can listen to a want. Forget what you should. What do you want?
Annoyingly, this work might be even harder than the previous work.
I usually know what I don’t want. I’m getting better at trusting that feeling and even articulating it—no, I don’t want to go out on Friday night when I could stay home with my dog and without real pants! But a) even that can be hard and b) identifying a “don’t want” and doing something else by default is still not a great way to identify a “do want.”
So I’ve been spending some time thinking about what I want to do, just for myself, because it’s OK to want for myself.
I want to read. This is a lifelong truth that will surprise no one who knows me at all. But I want to read only what I want to read, and I want to read it in my own time. I’ve been proud of myself for never not finishing a book, even if I hated it. Why??? And I’ve been ashamed of my pace of reading … since 2012, when I started grad school. I used to be able to finish a book in a day, two days. I still can; I know because I taunted myself about not being able to do it until I caved in and did literally nothing else for a day. Why??? I want to read thrillers and murder mysteries and, lately, Christian nonfiction that some people in my life would consider heretical. I’m going to do that! As slow as I want.
I want to write. Another obvious one, kind of. What might be less obvious is how deeply I have not wanted to write for the last several years. I queried a novel in 2017, which means I emailed a lot of literary agents and asked if they wanted to read my book and then get other people to read it with the ultimate goal of publishing it so people could pay to read it. Several people did read part of or all of the book, and several of them sent really nice emails. But no one sent The Email. That was discouraging. I started working on another book, and I love it, and I’ve been to workshops with it and shared pieces of it with wonderful writer friends who also love it, and that’s encouraging. But opening the book doc and trying to work on it makes me feel bad right now. That won’t always be true, hopefully. But it’s true right now, so I haven’t been working on the book. So I haven’t been writing at all. And I didn’t realize how bad that felt until really recently. So I added a blog to my website! And I wrote an essay about a TV character and submitted it to a few entertainment website editors! Maybe nothing will come of any of that. But it means I wrote ~4,000 words that I wanted to write this week, and my spirit feels brighter. So something already came of it! That counts!
I want to bake!?? I feel like I want to bake. And/or learn to make bread. Stay tuned.
In the abstract and the more outward-facing, I want to be more kind and loving. I want to be more bold and outspoken. I want to be authentic. I want to be light instead of feeling overwhelmed by so much darkness. Sounds like more work. Worth it, though.
It’s OK to want for yourself. What do you want? If you haven’t in a while, think of one thing you want just for you. Not just an alternative to a don’t-want, but something that makes your spirit feel brighter. Don’t should or what-if yourself out of it. It’s hard work, but it’s good work.