Should. It seems like a harmless word doesn’t it?! Just 6 little letters. We use it all the time, all day, every day. Mostly it’s about small things like you should get an early night, you should say no to that second glass of wine, you should be getting home now. Sometimes those things are larger and more meaningful, I should go on a diet, I should get more exercise, I should give up smoking. They’re all pretty harmless aren’t they. You’ll either do it or you won’t. There are no particularly huge consequences if you don’t, you know you should do them, but whether you will or not is a different matter. However, should isn’t always a harmless word, a case of being able to choose to do or not do something. Should has some dark sides, it makes us feel guilty, it makes us feel obligated, it’s a stick we use to beat ourselves with. Should, in my view, is a word that really ought to be banned. It’s caused me more harm than almost any other word I can think of. This might all sound quite dramatic and ridiculous, you might be wondering what I’m on about, how can a word so small, consisting of so few letters, possibly cause a person any harm, it’s only a word after all. Well, for a person with mental illness, or physical illness for that matter, should causes us a lot of guilt, a lot of bad feelings, and it causes us to ignore a lot of the signs our bodies and minds are giving us that we need to stop or slow down.
I should have a job.
I should be able to cope.
I should be stronger.
I should be thinner.
I should pull myself together.
I should be happier.
I should be studying for a Masters Degree.
I should be self-sufficient.
I should be doing more.
I should be trying harder.
I should be able to go out.
I should be normal.
I should be able to control my thoughts.
I should be able to go out without medication.
I should be more productive.
I should be improving.
I should be less of a burden.
It’s a bloody long list when you look at it typed out. Now you might be starting to see why should is such a problem, because having one thing in your head that you should do is ok, but having a list longer than you can possibly remember at one time is actually really overwhelming. Should drags you down. It makes you feel bad every time you can’t do something you should be doing.
Should serves no purpose. I realised this a long time ago but have never managed to properly apply it to myself. My go-to response in my head each time I can’t do something is that I should be able to do it. I don’t allow myself to accept that I can’t, that I’m unable to, by keeping it as a should it forces me into an automatic pattern of thought which leads to me feeling like I’ve failed because I’ve essentially chosen not to do the things I should. Should leads to unhappiness, it leads to depression, to unrealistic expectations, to guilt, to shame.
Instead of should we can break things down into two categories of want and need. Instead of I should go to bed early, I might be exhausted and burnt out and therefore need more sleep and to go to bed early, or I might just fancy a bit more time in bed, in which case it’d be me wanting to spend more time in bed by going to bed early. Either way, all of the shoulds that become wants instantly stop being a demand, they instantly become something you can choose to work towards, or to put off until another day. If it’s a need then you can put more time and energy into achieving those things because you know they’re more important than the wants and you therefore possibly halve your energy expenditure because you know the difference in importance of the tasks. There are all sorts of things that in today’s society we say we should do and indeed if you followed my categorising suggestion a great deal of them would be automatically placed into need to do, but some of those become less important if the consequence of doing them is that you get ill. I recently went through all of this with a friend of mine, she’s feeling very overwhelmed and knows she needs to change something but all of the things she does are things she feels she should do. When I broke it down with her she could only identify 2 things in her life that were wants, the rest were needs. Sadly, as someone whose life was turned upside down and almost all of the shoulds and needs turned into can’ts, I know this simply isn’t true, no matter how it looks. There are a few basic needs in life and as a psychology graduate I’ll actually show you this in a well-known diagram called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This hierarchy is brilliant and explains life so well. You have to achieve the base layer before being able to move up a level, the ultimate goal being self-actualisation where one feels happy, content and fulfilled, it’s not about winning the lottery or never having to work again, it’s about having all of your basic needs met and being content in the world and with yourself. This is something that mentally ill people really struggle with. Personally, I’m stuck working towards the Safety level because I don’t psychologically feel safe due to having an anxiety disorder, when I’m well I’m usually working towards the self-esteem level, again, difficult to achieve when you have depression.
So back to the friend, we all have obligations in life and these feel really important, but the fact of the matter is that if you dropped dead tomorrow, or became instantly housebound like I did, the world still carries on without you. Almost none of the things you feel you should or even need to do would get particularly disrupted, people would just work around it either until you came back or you’d be replaced. This isn’t a fun concept and it’s not one that most of us, including me, are very keen on, we like to feel special and important and like we have a place in the world that no one else can fill and while emotionally that’s very true, physically it’s almost certainly not. When you’re off sick for a week, your company doesn’t fall apart, they call in a temp or other people work extra hours, something changes and the work gets done anyway. My workplace didn’t fall apart without me, as far as I’m aware, it’s still a fully functional hospital that’s still treating and saving the lives of the most severely mentally unwell people in our community. While I did make a difference in my job, I was replaceable. However, your health is not. You may feel like you should, have to, need, to do things, but most of these things would get done without you. What you really do need to do, is look after yourself and actually those are the only things I would say are acceptable shoulds, and even then, they’re actually needs. The biggest one for me is that I need to keep myself as well as possible. Within that are lots of little things which I need to do in order to keep myself as well as possible, these include communicating with people, trying not to take on too much, eating properly, showering every day, getting dressed every day, and getting enough sleep. These are all needs. These are all things that if I don’t do them, will result in me getting worse. There’s no should about it, I have to do those things. Just like a diabetic has to take insulin, I have to do those things to keep well. The rest of the stuff I should do is actually all just wants. I want to write reviews, I want to make my blog successful, I want to see people and to have a clean flat and to stop being messy, but none of those are needs, nothing awful will happen if I don’t do those things, my dust allergies might get worse, I might start getting angry emails from publishers, but if the reason I’m not doing those things is in order to protect my health then I’m doing what I need to do, the rest will have to wait.
Now this doesn’t come naturally to me. At all! I grew up being told I was selfish for saying I couldn’t do things and was often told it was just that I didn’t want to or couldn’t be bothered. I’m having to relearn that sometimes you have to put your own needs first and that it isn’t selfish to do that, it’s self-preservation and no one else will do it for you. I’ve always had an extreme sense of loyalty, a strong desire to do the right thing and because of that I have placed huge levels of pressure on myself and kept myself to impossibly high standards. This is all well and good but when you’re ill, you simply can’t do the same things you always could, you can’t do everything and yet that niggling should in the back of your mind keeps on telling you that you can, you just won’t. And then you’ve failed, again. And again. And again. Because the shoulds will keep on coming, the more ill you get, the longer the list of things you should be doing becomes and the more overwhelmed and buried you get. But what’s more important? Your health, or the rest? I’m not talking about family here or having enough money to survive but all of the things that we sign ourselves up to that sometimes need to be cut down or even out of our lives when our bodies or minds aren’t coping anymore. Most people battle on through, they ignore those warning signs and they keep on doing what they should and then often they’ll have a breakdown and then you’re forced to stop almost everything, far more than you would’ve had to do if you’d have just cut back. Sometimes even just being nice to yourself, taking the pressure of should off your shoulders, is enough to calm you down, help you see clearer and navigate your way back to being healthy again.
The media perpetuate this idea of should in our lives, you should all be dieting, you should all have perfectly tanned skin, white teeth, fantastic thin bodies, you should all be married with children, as a woman you should be the perfect housewife, business woman and mum, you should do workouts and cook from fresh every day, you should think positive and drink wheatgrass. Should is truly all around us and it’s very hard to even notice let alone break free from it, I’ve certainly not managed it yet. You might be wondering why I’m writing this when I’m doing such a bad job of cutting it out in my own life, I’m a pretty rubbish role model. Well, it’s mostly because of that friend I mentioned. Because I was reminded that all of the mentally ill people I’ve ever talked to say it all the time. Way more than healthy people do. We beat ourselves with this rubbish should stick and it just makes everything so much worse. I’ve never written this blog as a self-help tool, I don’t have any solutions or even really any useful suggestions to make most of the time about recovery, I’ve been blogging for 2 years, housebound for 2.5 and I’m no closer to knowing what the answer is but I do know that being kind to yourself is never a bad thing, no one ever got worse from doing that and part of doing that is removing should from your life. I don’t know when or even if I’ll manage to remove it but I know I want to and I know I need to try. Anyone who knows me in real life will know just what a big challenge for me this is, I’ve lived by should my entire life and while I can totally see the logic and reasoning, actually implementing it is a totally different thing. I do truly believe though that if you can break down all of the shoulds in your life into wants and needs, you’ll be in a much better place to tackle them head on, to manage any conditions or symptoms you have and realise what’s actually important for your survival (and hopefully thriving too) and what’s actually superfluous. Give it a go, you might be surprised at the outcome, you know you should!
Let me know in the comments what shoulds you want to let go of and whether they’re wants or needs.