"Should" without the anxiety

  • I should be saving more.
  • I should be traveling more.
  • I should wash the dishes.
  • I should figure out what I want to do with my life.
  • I should read more books.
Statements like these flit through my mind all the time. Clara wrote a few months ago about the way “should” statements induce anxiety: Whenever I book a flight, the “Can I afford this?” voice pipes up accusingly, and whenever do I sock away money for a rainy day, I worry that I’m not enjoying the sunny ones enough.
But here’s something Clara and I have been doing lately to soften those “should” statements: add an “if.”  Compare:
  • I should be saving more.
  • If I want to have more money set aside for emergencies, I should save more.
Or:
  • I should be traveling more.
  • If I want to have a more varied experience in Europe, I should be traveling more.
When I articulate why I would want to save or travel, getting the underlying desires out in the open, it makes the conflict between those desires and not between the actions they demand.  Rather than choosing the lesser of two guilty feelings when I’m deciding where a dollar goes, I can let my desires for variety and security reach a compromise, like “It’s okay to spend Y per month on travel if I’m on target to save up X months of rent in case I lose my job.”  Knowing that all my inner voices are heard is a great relief.
Sometimes, the exercise of adding an “if I want” is helpful in other ways.
  • I should do the dishes now if I want to have the counter clear to prep food on later.
Just visualizing the outcome I want can make it easier to get off my bum and do it.
  • If I want my life to have a clear path, I should figure out what I want to do with it.
I do want to know where my life is going, but even the best plans don’t always work out.  When I accept that nothing in the future is certain, I feel less anxious about the vague need to “figure things out.”
And sometimes, adding on an “if I want” is just silly:
  • I should read more books if I … want to read more books?
Poof!  There goes the guilt about not reading enough.  I read for fun, not because I should!

This adapts well to “You should” statements too, by adding an “if you want.”  Which of these would you rather hear?

  • You should defrost your freezer!
  • If you want more space in your freezer, you should defrost it.

Why yes, I do want more space in my freezer!  But that’s just one of many wants, and I don’t need to act on them all right now.

I try to make sure I phrase my exhortations this way, to give someone an out if their priorities are different from mine.  Telling a student “If you want this passage in your thesis to be clearer, you should add more exposition” goes over much better with the “if” clause than without, if they turn out to be worried about exceeding the thesis page limit.  And when I hear “You should…”, tacking on an invisible “if I want…” in my mind makes it much easier to keep from getting angry that people don’t understand my unique situation.

To sum up, here’s my attempt at a tweet-able epigram:

If you want to say “should,” you should say “If you want.”
(Click to tweet)

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