Don’t ‘should’ on yourself

Years ago, as I was lamenting things I wish I’d done differently as a literacy coach, my mentor leaned over and put her hand on my arm. Shaking her head, she uttered this unforgettable phrase:

“Don’t should on yourself.”

I wrote it on the cover of my coaching notebook. I would tell it to teachers. We laughed and something was released. The work would still be work, endless and immense, but one felt a bit lighter approaching it.

There are some foundational, common-sense shoulds. One should bathe regularly. One should wear clothes in public. But many shoulds serve as self-imposed bars to remind us we aren’t measuring up, somehow. That we are less. I always loved to write but was trapped for years by the exhortation: “A writer must set a regular writing schedule.” Period. Oh, I’d think, that’s what I should do. That’s what real writers do. If I don’t, I’m not really a writer. Except that my life isn’t ever arranged in such neat compartments of time. Schedules have to change too much. Then: “Writers write every day.” —I should do that! I want to do that! When I didn’t, a niggling sense of failure tugged at my spirit. Cobwebs of despair wound round my heart. The inner critic gloated: “Toldja. You don’t have what it takes.” Scraping should off myself took a long, long time—it likes to fossilize, layer by layer. Its armor is self-guilt. Its color, regret. Should doesn’t need the sharp spear of fear; it is the deadweight of an anvil, iron forming in the soul, shard by shard.

Should isn’t battled with mere acceptance. That’s dangerous ground. I did have to accept that I couldn’t write on the same schedule, every day, but I couldn’t stop there or I would never write. The secret weapon, for me anyway, was reimagining. What do I really want to accomplish? What does success look like for me, within the pattern of my days? I wanted to write more and to write better. I had stories to tell. Eventually they led to this blog. The blog led to wanting to uplift others—there’s already plenty in the world pulling us down. I found myself uplifted in the process. I write several times a week, some weeks more than others. I write whenever I can carve out the precious pockets of time…and for the record, thinking about writing is writing, which I do in the background of my mind all day, every day. A hasty note capturing a fragile new idea before it sprouts wings and flies away is writing. On a Post-It, in the margins of my planner, in notes on my phone, eventually transferring to a notebook… whenever the idea appears, I stop for a second to see it, translucent, barely formed, and catch it. To me that’s the most important thing a writer does. One cannot spin without a thread of silk. And so I had to reimagine what writing looks like, what it really is. I shook off should and carried on with far more productivity on my own terms—without feeling guilty for stopping to rest whenever I need to.

When Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog encouraged writing as a way to “shed your shoulds,” I was reminded, once again, that should is too often an unnecessary, subconscious burden…

Shed your shoulds
like leaves in woods
Trees shorn of fragility
preserve their ability
to survive.

Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’
like leaves curling with regret
Spiraling, sigh by sigh
piling inside, dead and dry
cluttering today.

Beware should’s false measure
robbing Now of its pleasure
Shed those shoulds
like autumn woods
composting for tomorrow.

The moral of the story, Friends: Don’t should on yourself.

Scrape that mess off and use it for fertilizer.

*******

I’ve joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join, too.

15 thoughts on “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself

  1. I relate so well to this advice. The shoulds can really get you down and create a non-productive, ucky feeling. I had a long list of shoulds before my daughter’s wedding. I thought I should be doing more. In the end, she had it all together. She knew what she wanted. Her vision was not mine and we couldn’t ever be on the same page. Letting go of should was the only thing that saved our relationship. I talk about her being the youngest and being the most bridezilla; however, in truth, she’s probably the most independent after a lifetime of trying to cut the cord, she needed to be in charge of this. Her need overcame my should and the day was perfect. And I think our relationship is in tact. I finally signed up for Sharing our Stories email. The aspect of blogging that I love is this exchange of connection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How I admire your overcoming “should” with great wisdom and restraint, Margaret! Seems that battle calls for different tools at different times. Reflecting on how letting go of “should” can save a relationship…that’s powerful. And true. I know sometimes “should” is a force of good, such as when you told me I should join the Poetry Fridays. It’s such been a joy and source of strength and growth. Not one regret. “Should” becomes detrimental to one’s wellbeing when it undermines one’s strength and growth – and relationships. Delighted to know you’ve signed up for SOS! I’ve just started, really. It was a “should” I never questioned- it was a knowing.

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  2. Loved the secret weapon you shared with us – reimagining. And this phrase: Thinking about writing is writing.” Time to shake off the shoulds and move forward. I’m hanging onto some of Deb’s shoulds though. I should eat chocolate every day. I should take a nap on Sundays.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “One cannot spin without a thread of silk.” Love this line and how you capture writing seeds so that you have them when the time is (write) right. I’m glad you are here and sharing with us because your words always make me smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Fran. I love these lines in your post “ The secret weapon, for me anyway, was reimagining. What do I really want to accomplish? What does success look like for me, within the pattern of my days?”

    I am putting this on the top of my writing notebook. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this part: “Scraping should off myself took a long, long time—it likes to fossilize, layer by layer. Its armor is self-guilt. Its color, regret. Should doesn’t need the sharp spear of fear; it is the deadweight of an anvil, iron forming in the soul, shard by shard.” Such beautiful writing! I feel covered in shoulds some days. This was so encouraging!

    Liked by 1 person

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