The “Should” List

It’s a simple conversation. They’re offering advice.

“Oh, have you thought about taking a self-defense class?”

“Are you streaming on Twitch?”

“Have you found a doctor/church/gym/“insert a seemingly helpful suggestion here” yet?”

And I always have the same answer: “I should do that.”

Seems innocuous enough, right? Of course, I should do all those things. Doesn’t a productive person, someone who’s seeking success in life, have a mental list of all the things she needs to do to live her best life? With social media and its endless barrage of life tips, DIY hacks, recipe ideas, fitness challenges, and parenting/relationship advice, how could you NOT have a “should list.” Hasn’t life just become one long list of FOMO-related activities?

It was at my most recent counseling appointment that my therapist asked me: “Why do you do that? What do you mean when you say ‘I should do that.’” And it was like being shoved naked through the curtain onto a theater stage with a giant spotlight blinding me. All my worst secrets exposed.

I speak of my “should’s” a lot. Any time someone suggests something helpful to me, I say it out loud as some kind of apology. “I’m sorry, I know I should be doing that.” And “should’s” are also a constant in my inner dialogue as a form of self-degradation. I don’t have to apologize to myself. I can be as viscerally cruel as I want in pointing out all the ways I’m constantly failing at life because my “should list” only keeps growing. “You should do that, Kaitlyn. You would be better off if you did that. Why aren’t you doing that? Why are you so lazy/distracted/awful that you can’t do that thing you should be doing?”

No one had ever called me out on it before, and it was like zooming out on my life for just a moment and realizing how I’ve been interacting with the world for the last 28 years. Suddenly I was seeing another toxic way I spoke to myself without even realizing it. And though deeply ingrained in my way of thinking, the first step to fixing something is understanding that there’s a problem.

My therapist had the suggestion that I try reframing my “should’s” into “could’s.”

Instead of “I should take a self-defense class,” make it “I could take a self-defense class.” Therefore it becomes “I could stream on Twitch” and “I could start a podcast” and “I could join a gym” and “I could find a local meet-up.”

Oh. the liberation of “could!”

It becomes a possibility. An option that you’re considering. Not an obligation. Not a failure. Not meant to inspire guilt.

I’m not sure the difference between those words in terms of emotional baggage had ever occurred to me before. I had been laying the burden of “should” onto my shoulders daily. Burying myself under feelings of inadequacy through statements of intent that on the surface seemed helpful, but in reality, only pushed me further from being able to accomplish any of the things I felt were vital to my (most likely slightly skewed) version of success.

Now I’m not saying that suddenly I’ve been cured of my “should’s” and now I always reframe with “could.” That’s laughable. I’ve had nearly 3 decades of training myself to think in this mindset of guilt and shame and “should’s.” But having the knowledge and option to try changing these statements to “could’s” is a good place to start.

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