Three years ago I made a decision that changed the way I think about my daily choices.
I banned one word from my vocabulary: should.
It's a simple word. Most people use it frequently: I should call so-and-so. I should do laundry. I should exercise more.
So why did I get rid of it? Here's the thing: should is a dangerous word. At least it is for me. Should carries a negative connotation that makes me immediately feel guilty for not innately wanting to do something I "should" do, or for not feeling a way that I "should" feel.
For years, I found myself regularly arguing with myself over everyday decisions. I would tell myself that I "should" go be social at some party or other even though I really just wanted to watch a chick-flick at home. Feeling guilty, I'd go, but then I'd be cranky and just want to leave while I was there. Then, I'd tell myself that I "should" not be cranky because parties are supposed to be fun, and I'd feel bad all over again for not being a happier person. I would get myself stuck in a downward spiral of self-criticism as I struggled to meet the demands I'd given myself for the person I "should" be.
I would tell myself that I "shouldn't" be worried about something, or that I "should" go help out a friend. "Should" made it a chore, and so even when I was doing good things that could have been fun, if I acted because I thought I "should", I robbed myself of the accomplishment and focused on my negative emotions instead. No fun.
When I finally realized this, and made the choice to change it, I was shocked at how much altering the word altered how I thought about myself and my choices. I realized that there is no "should" or "should not". There are things we need to do. There are feelings that will not make me happy if I dwell on them. But there is no feeling I "should" not have.
Once I learned to acknowledge and accept my feelings as they came, I found I was able to cope with them better. Rather than tell myself, "This is dumb; I shouldn't be stressed over this," I rephrased the thought: "Okay, I'm stressed. What is the basis for my stress? What is in my control in this situation? What do I have to let go because it's outside my control?" All of the sudden (okay, maybe not suddenly, but definitely over time), I stopped feeling guilty for feelings like stress, anxiety, fear, doubt, and frustration. Instead of beating myself up, I have learned (at least more often) to turn to the Lord for help as I talk things through with him.
I still catch myself using "should" sometimes. When I do, I make myself go back and delete the "should" in my brain and replace it with a classic "If...then" statement. If I do _____________, then I will be happier because _____________.
Yesterday I thought, "I should clean the kitchen, but I'm tired and I really want 20 minutes to myself after several hours of wrangling my adorable-but-extremely-exhausting baby." If I say "should", I feel guilty for not being a good homemaker and I start feeling like a lazy blob of a person, despite all the other productive things I may have done that day. So I rephrased the idea in my mind. I told myself that the kitchen really needed to be cleaned, and if I dedicated a half hour to doing as much as I could, then I would reward myself with the remainder of nap time to read a book or whatever I wanted to do. I knew I'd be happier relaxing when I knew I'd gotten something productive done. When I think this way, I still accomplish what needs to be done, and I avoid the guilt. I feel empowered by choosing to act instead of feeling enslaved by the many "shoulds" in my life.
Occasionally, I even realize that I won't be happier because of doing the thing, and so I don't do it. Awesome. Now I didn't have to do the thing I didn't want to do, and I realize that there's no reason to feel guilty for it.
There are a million things I can tell myself I "should" be doing or doing better in life:
I should be a more patient mother.
I should be able to handle more on my own.
I should not ever be stressed when my husband comes home.
I should find more time to serve others.
I should learn how to do my hair in something more than a ponytail.
Oh, how I could keep going. But I won't. Because all the shoulds in the world don't do me any good. So I'm trashing them. Instead, I'm going to love who I am, where I am, and work from where I am to become better. I want to do that. It makes me happy.
Maybe I'm the only one who has gone through "should"-induced guilt. But I doubt it. We as humans (and especially women) are often too hard on ourselves. So give yourself a break. Trash the word "should" from your vocabulary. Don't do it because you feel like you "should". But if you do, I bet you'll be happier. :)