The Burden of Should

There are plenty of ‘bad’ words out there. Lots of them are four letters long, but I never thought about should being one of them (though it’s clear others have). See, I have a lot of shoulds in my life.

  • I should exercise more
  • I should eat fewer carbs
  • I should save more money
  • I should read all the books on my shelf
  • I should clean up X, Y, Z
  • I should write that book

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting these things, it’s just that with a constant stream of shoulds (of which the above is only a partial listing) I’m actively reminding myself that I’m not doing it and that adds insistent pressure on me. Before I know it, I’m stressing out about the long list of things I should be doing and I have a limited desire to actually do any of them.

Now I realise that this line of thinking, this subjugation to all the things I think I should be doing, doesn’t bring me joy. In fact, it brings a sense of obligation into my life. Obligation makes me feel stressed. And ultimately, I end up swamped with a sense of not good enough. That feeling has overtaken me in the past and led me into deeply depressed waters. Having clawed my way out of that, I’m aware that I need to remain vigilant about these triggers. I need to be more active in avoiding that path again and one way to do that is to look at each of these shoulds and ask myself why.

Why do I feel inadequate? Why do I feel I’m spending too much? Why do I need to read all these books? Why do I have so many of these things? Why am I trying to force myself to write?

Answering these questions provides me with greater clarity as to whether or not I will do those things (for which I can make a plan) or if it’s something I should let go of. Either way, it relieves the pressure I’ve been putting on myself to do everything and releases me from feeling disappointed in myself for falling short. So, in an effort unburden myself of these shoulds, there are a few things I’ve opted to let go.

First, a good chunk of my clothes. Like a lot of other women I know, I’ve held onto clothing that no longer fits me in the hopes that I’ll be able to wear them again someday after I’ve lost the weight I keep telling myself I should lose. But I recently read someone’s thoughts on this practice of holding onto ill-fitting clothing as a way of holding onto the past and not living in the present. This made a lot of sense to me as I realised these ‘skinny clothes’ were yet another visual reminder of what size I think I should be. So the emotions and the pressure starts to builds up when I see them and think God, remember when I was skinny? But really, in my heart, I’m internalising the critical thought, Remember when I wasn’t fat? Clearly, this isn’t a kind thought of self-love, but one of self-hate. So in an effort to embrace who I am, whatever size I am at this moment, I sorted through my wardrobe and chucked all the clothes that don’t fit or that were uncomfortable into a bag and donated it.

Second, over 80 of my physical books. I’ve always been a great lover of books, but I’ve never been much of a re-reader. So for decades, I collected books. – some I read, but many more that I told myself I’d read. By the time I left California, I had well over 400 novels in my collection. Since I had practice letting go of 75% of my books in preparation for the move, I had an easier time than expected culling my remaining collection. Once I stared at them all and asked myself why was I keeping them (answer: so I could read them someday), I realised that I someday hadn’t yet come. Not in years. So did I need them? Why was I holding on to them? Was I realistically going to ever read them all? Likely not. So I pulled them off the shelf, handled each one and decided to keep my very favourites and a few that I genuinely think I intend to read. I donated the rest and have never felt so much more calm looking at my bookcase. With only a limited number of ‘unreads’ now lining my shelf, the pressure and visual reminder of books I should read has been greatly reduced. Maybe I will actually get ’round to reading them now (especially now that I can see them all).

Thirdly, demanding digital distractions. My phone is constantly vibrating with alerts of news, someone’s message, a tweet several people I follow liked, a Facebook message, a pin on Pinterest, a game alert, some Etsy creation I might like, a reminder on my calendar – it’s sometimes very overwhelming and distracting. And every time I open my phone, there are these bright red bubbles with numbers on them, visually screaming that I have X-number of things yet to do, to deal with, to see. Each one of them was an indicator of something that I thought should be looked at. But I didn’t really need to see them. In fact, I didn’t really need to be notified of them because most of the time, they didn’t really need any action from me at all. So I went through and eliminated my 19k+ unread personal emails, unsubscribed from tonnes of unnecessarily mailing lists (many of which were from when I was living in the US) and now maintain a much more manageable count of 5-7 unread emails. I’ve also removed notifications from all except a few applications or modified them so they no longer ding, vibrate or leave otherwise unread banners on my locked screen. As a result, I feel less of a need to check my phone and less pressure to have to respond to the sleepless demands of any one application.

Lastly- this one being the most difficult, personally – I’m letting go of my fiction writing dream. At least, temporarily. It’s been a big struggle lately. For a while, I thought it was because I was out of practice and wasn’t reading enough. So, I tried to read more. And I did! To my amazement, I’ve read more books in 2016 (26 of them) than I have since 2007. The closest I’ve come to that was the 17 novels read in 2009. It is perhaps no coincidence that during this time, I was writing fast and furiously within romance and young adult. My reading reflected that as the majority of novels I read then were romance and young adult. But as I reviewed what I read in 2016, I was shocked to find that I’d read far more non-fiction novels than I had romance and young adult. I wondered then if my tastes and interests have changed, and if so, if they mean I’ve changed and that maybe I was writing the wrong thing. Further introspection led me to think about my 2016 NaNoWriMo effort and how difficult I found the writing, how challenging it was to come up with an idea. So I asked myself if writing fiction was still giving me joy, if I still loved it, and why was I continuing to do it. But the answer I came up with was no, I haven’t found joy in it lately. I still love writing, it’s why I do what I do and why I keep this blog, but why was I forcing myself to continue writing genre fiction if I wasn’t enjoying it? The only answer I could come up with then is because I felt like I should. And therein lies the burden.

So, I’m letting go of it. Of all of it. Maybe only for a time, or maybe permanently. But with each item or should I let go of, I can feel the burden lifting. There’s freedom in no longer feeling guilty about not doing things those things I told myself I should, and instead actually having the time, space, energy and permission to do whatever it is that’s bringing me joy. At the moment, that includes being creative in other ways – writing this blog, crocheting, teaching myself to knit, decluttering my life… and reading plenty more.

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