The Should Jar

“Be willing to let go of who you think you should be, in order to be who you are.” -Brené Brown

“I had a major breakthrough.” I have uttered these words as my anthem of late. I have been incubated in a deeply personal, and sometimes painful, process of reinvention and self-discovery. With all the accomplishments and accolades I can list on my résumé, it turns out that me, myself and I is the biggest, most difficult project I will ever attempt to tackle. In Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire present research explaining how the creative mind is a “messy place.” They explain that creative thinkers are willing to look deep into themselves, the deepest darkest corners of their beings, to find answers that often do not surface until this inner world collides with the outer world. As it turns out, we long for breakthroughs in all their many messy and chaotic forms.

Taking a lesson from Niequist.

Oftentimes, I will read a book that, much like an old friend, nudges and gently speaks to my soul. A door or window is opened enabling me to air out the stuffy, dark corners of my mind. I just finished listening to Present over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist. While I prepped food for the week, drove carpool, and soaked in the tub, I had a conversation with Niequist where mostly I listened. Occasionally, I would interject an, “Uh-huh, girl, you got that right!” But mostly I listened, and she taught me so much in our four-hour conversation. I was fully present hearing what she was saying, and make no mistake, she was talking directly to me and only me.

As I always do, I had to share these new findings with someone immediately. My close friend, Becca, is privy to all my crazy. Anne Lamott says, “My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try to never go there alone.” This weekend, Becca accompanied me on a stroll through my dicey hood. Hands waving in exasperation, I enthusiastically recounted my most recent epiphany. “Niequist says that ‘should’ is a dangerous word for her. That makes sense to me! I am always thinking I ‘should’ be doing this or that.” In her sage wisdom, Becca looked at me with her trademark “Well, obviously,” look and said, “Yes, you always say that. You say ‘should’ all the time.”

There it was. I am a should-er. I should be cooking. I should be grading. I should be working out. I should be spending more time with the kids. I should be doing more to help my parents. I should be writing. And then even worse, I should be better, faster, smarter, stronger, more successful. I spend my life in a perpetual state of should-ness. I do it to keep myself in check and never let myself off the hook. There is an unending should-list in my mind.

Now, I will partly blame Becca and the rest of my tribe because they SHOULD have pointed out this flaw much earlier. Regardless, now that I can admit I have a problem, it is time to get to work. Another good friend told me her yoga instructor calls the “should” mentality the “ought line.” She recognizes some people’s tendency to constantly dwell on what they “ought” to be doing instead of what they are actually doing. Call it what you may, it is a nasty habit to deny joy and presence in order to lament and regret what we “should” or “ought” to be doing.

Since having this realization, I have had numerous conversations with female friends who share my tendency to “should.” There is a sense of guilt that accompanies anything we might choose to do for ourselves. If we are feeding our souls through enriching experiences with friends, reading, writing, painting, creating or relaxing, we feel an obligation and pressure to be doing for others or chipping away at the neverending to-do lists. Yet, I could argue that for me reading, writing and connecting with friends are all essential for my health and emotional well-being. They are necessary. They should be a priority, and I should be fully present to savor those moments.

In order to redirect my daily life, I realize that I need to frame my thoughts differently. I am a stubborn one and will not be able to drop 37 years of “shoulding” overnight. It will be a gradual process and yet another unbecoming. I feel empowered by the fact that I can catch all these “shoulds” I have been tossing around. Instead of a swear jar, I can create a “should” jar to hold myself accountable. Though it will take work and discipline, I refuse to enter the second half of my life lugging a giant wagon of “shoulds” behind me. I am going to attempt to redirect those thoughts to a positive affirmation of what I “will” do.

  • I will give myself quiet time, free from distractions, to write.
  • I will spend hours curled up reading books that nourish my heart and mind.
  • I will take long walks with my husband and talk about our dreams.
  • I will cuddle with my kids while they read Diary of a Wimpy Kid aloud to me for the umpteenth time.
  • I will talk, listen and laugh until I cry with the people who are nearest and dearest to my heart.
  • I will stop entertaining thoughts of “should” at every single turn of my day.

This breakthrough might seem simple to some, but for me, it is everything. Purging my life of “should” involves allowing myself to enjoy the present. It means savoring the moments of calm and quiet spent with my loved ones without guilt or worry. It means caring for my heart and soul by clearing out the static that tries to rob my joy at any given moment. It means being at peace, welcome and at home in this messy neighborhood of a mind. Niequist delivered this gentle reminder: “Stop. Right now. Remake your life from the inside out.” Yes, I think I will — one breakthrough at a time.