This year, I gave myself what felt like an extravagant Christmas gift. I signed up for a writer’s workshop—12 weeks of meeting with a group of writers to talk about our writing lives, workshop pieces in progress, and cheer each other on as we each work toward more rewarding relationships with the page.

It was not the cost that made it feel extravagant—it’s not cheap, but I view it as a solid investment in myself—and it felt more like an essential move than a luxury. What made it feel like such a special splurge was that deciding to participate in a workshop like this meant that I had to let go of a damaging idea I’ve carried around for most of my life: the idea that I should be better at this by now. I should just be able to finish work and settle right in to my creative pursuits. I should be able to motivate myself intrinsically. I should be better—not just at writing, but at the work of life in general. For a time, I would have viewed this need—for help, for support, for accountability, to literally pay someone to force me to write—as a failure. Now, I think of it as a victory. Who cares what I “should” do? This works for me.

Letting Go Of Should

One of the things that we’ve talked about in our group so far is the urgent persistence of our “gremlins.” The voices that tell us we’re not good enough, that the writing on the page is trash that makes no sense, that no one would ever want to read our work. These voices sound remarkably similar to the voices that tell us we’re not good enough at anything.

When We “Should” Ourselves

The New Year can be a time of great transformation. It can also become a playground for our gremlins. It’s a time of year when so many of us look at our lives and start to contemplate all of our shoulds. I should work out more. I should eat healthier. I should stop spending so much time on Twitter. I should finally pursue a new job, become a better leader, get more effective with my time. I should become a more perfect version of myself.

The problem with all these shoulds is that they often don’t actually translate into action—they simply become another stick that we can beat ourselves up with. (If you are one of those people who can think, “I should do something,” and then find the motivation to turn that idea into action, I applaud you—and this post is probably not for you. Please, tell me about your sorcery.)

When We “Should” Others

Now that I’m paying closer attention, I’ve noticed how often the word “should” comes out of my mouth in conversation with others. “You should try tracking that in a spreadsheet.” Or, “you should try meditation” (my eyes rolled even as I typed that). Or, “You should buy this thing that really worked for me.” Should becomes a word that allows a lazy and superficial connection—a way of turning the conversation back to myself, of projecting my own insecurity about what I “should” be doing onto another person. The gremlin morphs into its more sinister cousin, the advice monster.

When Others “Should” Us

I now notice how often people say the word “should” to me as well. How easy it is for people who aren’t me to offer suggestions for how I could become a better version of myself. Advice for how I should learn to love the cold. For how I could get better about bringing my lunch from home. Advice on how to do my work and live my life. I’d like to be more gracious about accepting this advice, but I often just resent it. It’s so easy for someone on the outside to offer up what they think I “should” do.

There is often a great distance between what is and what we think “should” be.

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 This year, I’m working to strike the word “should” from my vocabulary. Unless I’m specifically asked for advice, and understand the complexity of a situation, I’m going to do my best not to tell people what they should do. And, when others offer up what they think I should do, I will do my best to accept graciously, think about it, and then do what works for me anyway.

There is often a great distance between what is and what people think “should” be. Should I be a writer who can motivate herself each day? Maybe. What I am is a writer who needs some support—that’s what gets me to the page. Should I get outside more and stop complaining about the cold? Maybe it’s time I accept the realities of Canadian winter and just get outdoors. I’m probably not going to though—my feet are always cold.

Instead of worrying about what I should be, I’m going to focus on what I am, and try to get just a little bit better every day. You should try it with me.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
There is often a great distance between what is and what we think “should” be. Letting go of should and focused our attention elsewhere could be empowering.

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