Should is a nasty word; it implies you’re doing something wrong. We all think it, we all say it, and we all need to be a little nicer to ourselves. I’m terribly guilty of this. I just finished the first official year of my doctoral program and today I decided to relax, not go to the gym, and enjoy a little downtime. (GASP!) I’m generally a go, go, go person, so I always feel like I should be doing something productive. But why? I liken the word should to the word shame, as in, I’m ashamed that I did or did not do __X__.
I should go to the gym. I should not eat that ice cream. I should start working on the next project.
Eating well, exercising, finishing that task, the list of our shoulds is endless. In one of the women’s groups I work with we talk about self-compassion. We seem to should things that may be meaningful, but… Do they deserve the importance we give them? What I mean is, I can’t count the times I’ve said, “I should order a salad,” when I really want something else. Even now, that statement makes me feel a level of shame and judgment. (I literally just thought to myself, “I should make a salad for dinner.” Sigh.) On the other hand, if I say to myself, “I should make sure I have food and shelter,” or “I should avoid being attacked by a bear,” I don’t feel shame or judgment. (In fact, I’m unconsciously nodding my head. That IS a good idea.) In contrast, making sure I order a salad at lunch isn’t quite as meaningful. So why do we feel so terrible when we aren’t perfect?
I think there is this notion that for some people healthy choices are easier or more natural, whereas the rest of us have this lifelong back-and-forth of temptation and willpower that creates a make-believe standard impossible to meet. As a dietitian, I walk a fine line between hoping people become healthier and hoping they become more accepting. Telling ourselves that we should or shouldn’t be, do, or act a certain way does not change behavior; in fact, I think it may worsen the situation. In the end, I want everyone to have a long, fulfilling life, and constantly shoulding ourselves doesn’t sound fulfilling.
This is the reason I talk about small changes: Walk an extra ten minutes at lunch; add a pear as a snack; take five minutes to breathe and relax. Small changes don’t require shoulds, they’re small dos that up to a lot of small victories.