Saturday, November 6, 2010

The tyranny of the should

There is something about the fall that always causes time to move faster for me. Maybe it is because the days get shorter, or because all the summer vacation days are officially behind us. When I was younger, I thought it was because school was starting up again, and things really were busier, with new teachers or professors to get used to, and homework taking up the evening hours again. This year, I suppose I could blame in on pregnancy hormones, or Nik dropping his nap completely, or taking on too many projects at work. Whatever it may be, as the winter approaches, and I invariably find myself falling behind once again, I feel myself more and more under the tyranny of the should.

I am sure I am not alone in this habit of particularly pessimistic form of self-commentary. Looking at the glass as perpetually half-empty, when the days fly by and the list of things I haven't done gets longer, it is so easy to berate myself for all the things I should have done:

I should vacuum. I should dust. I should work on that knit blanket I said I would make for the new baby. I should bake. I should clear off my scrapbooking desk, and use some of that mountain of supplies I have amassed over the years. Come to think of it, I haven't printed any pictures in such a long time, I really should get on that, too. Oh, and make an appointment for formal portraits for the family, or at least for Nik, before it is time to send out the Christmas cards. And my Christmas card list needs updating. I should get to that one of these days...

And on and on it goes.

I could fill hundreds of lines with "should" statements, and I am still not convinced I would come to an end. The goals might get loftier than those of housework (I should make more time for charity, or some such), but I don't think I would run out of things to put down. And that is even before I start into the "should have"s and the "should not"s. There is always ample opportunity for me to 'should all over myself'.

Over the years, I have learned strategies to break free from this depressing thought pattern, and the change always begins with recognizing that I have fallen victim to the tyranny yet again. If you, too, have gotten stuck there in your own life, I wanted to share five techniques that have brought me the most relief; those things I should do more often. ;-)

Make a "Done" list - This is one of the most practical pick-me-ups that I have turned to when I realize I am exhausted at the end of yet another day, and am silently berating myself for the things I failed to get to. For one full day, write down everything you accomplished. This includes taking a shower, unloading the dishwasher, and making the bed. Write down how many stories you read to a child, how many loads of laundry were washed and dried (maybe even folded and put away), and how many phone calls you answered. If you start in the morning, and keep track all day, you will be surprised at how much you really are accomplishing. It is no wonder you are having trouble getting to that filing, or whatever task is not getting done in your life. Give yourself a break!

A helping of humility - Sometimes the reason we are so aggravated with ourselves at the end of the day is because we are trying to reach some unreachable standard. You may think it is an admirable behaviour to try to be the perfect parent, perfect spouse or perfect employee, but believing that it is even possible for you to reach some perfect standard at anything is the classic pride that goes before a fall. Realize that you are not perfect, and that you cannot become so even with vast amounts of effort. An attitude born from humility will help you take setbacks in stride, accept compliments without becoming conceited, and remind you to cut others some slack, too.

Ask for assistance - Sometimes we forget that we are not the only ones out there. Family members, friends and co-workers often are able and willing to help out, but in our rush to get things done, we forget to let them know that we are struggling. Humility can help here again, because it frees us of the belief that only we can do it 'right'. Whether the help given is in practical contributions, helping us to plan our priorities, or just reassurance that we are doing fine, the support of others makes it much easier to leave the "should" cycle behind.

Take time out - I know it seems counter-intuitive, but when we have really gotten caught up in our own little hamster wheels, sometimes the best thing to do is to just stop. Stop trying to catch up, stop obsessing, stop doing that 'just one more thing', stop adding things to your list of shoulds... and just take a breath. Whether with prayer, meditation, deep breathing or just a cup a tea, even five minutes of time out can recharge you for the work ahead, and give you perspective on what is most important.

Put it in perspective - Ah, yes, that elusive perspective. It is hard to see the big picture when we are caught in a day to day cycle of the details. If you are having a hard time letting anything go item on your list go unfinished, ask yourself two questions: What needs to be done today, and what will matter next year? We need to eat, we need clean clothes to wear. Likewise, our loved ones need to know they are loved, and we all need fond memories to look back on. But the dusting? It can really wait.

I expect that I will never be completely free of the tyranny of the should. Bad habits die hard, after all. But I am getting better at recognizing when I have moved there, and quicker to give myself permission to leave. I wish the same for you, especially as we move into the business of the pre-holiday season.

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