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It's Time To Stop Should-ing On Ourselves

My friends all do it. And I do, too.

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gif of typography on a scale stop shoulding yourself
Carolyn Sewell
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“You’re should-ing on yourself again.” My therapist gave me her trademark and very therapist-y head tilt.

“Ugh, you’re right.” I’d just said I should be happy. Lots of things were supposedly going right in my life, and I had lots to be grateful for, so why couldn’t I just … be happy?

This came up repeatedly for me in therapy in the beginning, and as I slowly learned from my therapist not to should all over myself, I began to notice my female friends were should-ing all over themselves too.

It’s no secret that being a woman comes with a special kind of pressure — expectations that often feel impossible to meet. When we’re young, we’re supposed to have lean, toned bodies and clear skin, but at the same time, we should love our bodies even with all their imperfections and not focus too much on our looks. As mothers, we must raise well-behaved, high achieving children while also maintaining aforementioned looks, physical and mental health, a household, a career or meaningful volunteering and a marriage. In our 40s, we’re not supposed to give a f--- or have time for bulls---. By our 40s, we should have it all figured out.

Women’s lives are erupting volcanoes of should. Whether it’s about a thing we think we should be doing or a feeling we think we should be having, we are forever trying to maneuver our actions and feelings around a predetermined formula. But who made this formula and who said we have to follow it? I have never heard a man chastise himself the way women do, saying he should or shouldn’t do something or should or shouldn’t feel a certain way. Men generally assume the way they’ve decided to react to a situation is the most reasonable possible response. It’s only women who invalidate themselves with shoulds.

It’s the self-flagellating version of “I’m sorry,” which women also say far too often. In the grocery store, if I come within two inches of another human, I find myself telling them “I’m sorry.” When a simple “excuse me” would suffice, I feel the need to apologize. Why? Why do I do this? What is there to be sorry about?

I was in therapy, drowning in depression, saying I should be happy as if it’s even possible to shame yourself out of a feeling. Telling myself over and over that I should be happy only made me even more miserable. The root of my depression was real and valid. Trying to pretend it didn’t exist only worsened the very feeling I was trying to recover from. Depression by itself is bad enough. Adding shame on top definitely doesn’t help.

The shoulds I hear from my female friends manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes it comes out like an apology. From a friend a few weeks ago: “I should look forward to our family vacation, but my grouchy teenager would rather stay in town with friends, and it’s so much work because my husband leaves the planning and packing to me.” My friend doesn’t have to apologize for not wanting to be the family mule and cheerleader. Even if she ultimately ends up doing those thankless jobs anyway, she’s allowed to not enjoy it. She’s allowed to admit she doesn’t enjoy it.

“Should” also comes out when women don’t think they’re doing enough. We fill our days with work and home and exercise and friendship and parenting, yet heaven forbid we neglect anything or anyone or miss a single item on our to-do list. We “should” on ourselves mercilessly, as if we have an unlimited number of hours in the day or can live without sleep.

I should exercise more. I should eat healthier. I should read more books. I should, I should, I should.

Except, it’s completely acceptable to do only what you can during any given day. It’s also fine to take a day here and there to zone out and do absolutely nothing. We don’t have to apologize in the form of listing all the things we should have done.

The “should” that saddens me the most though, is the one we use when battling anxiety or depression or suffering through hardship. Especially in our 40s, which is a turbulent time for many of us — we’re sending our kids to college, caring for ailing parents, dealing with marriage struggles or rebuilding after divorce, loving friends through cancer treatments, all while adapting to wild shifts in hormones. A dear friend of mine lost her father last year, and she has said she should be feeling better by now. She wondered aloud why she still has such hard days. I told her she doesn’t have to feel any certain way. She loved her father. She’s allowed to grieve him for as long as her heart needs to grieve, and she certainly doesn’t need to apologize for feeling the depth of his loss. Her feelings are valid.

And so are mine and yours. So, let’s stop should-ing on ourselves. Let’s give ourselves the breathing room to feel all the feelings and to do as little or as much as feels right to us because we decided so. And not because of any arbitrary set of expectations placed upon us.