I should eat better… I should go to the gym… I should watch less TV… I should get more sleep… I should be better… I should be thinner… I should be… I should do… I should be… I should do…
The word ‘should’ is like a drumbeat. Sometimes it pounds, sometimes it thrums, sometimes quietly, sometimes noisily, but it’s always there: incessant and indefatigable.
I’ve written before about how ‘should’s can be unhelpful, but some recent reading and living has caused me rethink this and here I am, mere months later, proposing a more nuanced approach to the idea of ‘should’s.
I used to see self-care as a way to protect myself from the ‘should’s, a shield against them as it were, but, after yet another evening spent staring at my phone, eating pizza and experiencing my recently highly active anxiety not being soothed by either, I began to wonder whether what I was doing was true care for my self, and whether maybe the ‘should’s did have something to tell me after all… Because, it struck me, there are different sorts of ‘should’s’. Some are highly critical and shaming. Others are supportive of your growth. What I am calling Conscious Self-Care is all about learning to tell the difference
Did you know that ‘care’ means attention, love, kindness? With these words, we can see how perhaps the need to truly see and hear your own self and your own needs is what might be needed more than another pizza and boxset night in your PJs. Self-care has been co-opted by the same industries that caused most of the harm in the first place – big media, big Pharma and big food. With too much of it just being consumerism repackaged as a deserved treat and respite from modern day stresses.
Conscious care for the self needs to come from a different (regular!) source than the couch or the spa weekend.
What I am calling Conscious Self-Care is about learning to see and hear the ‘should’s’ clearly and also being able to assess them with awareness. It means tuning into real needs: the need to feel that one is supported, that one can grow and is growing and evolving as a thriving self needs to do. As well as needs for intimacy, support and other experiences which can often be a lot less socially acceptable than suggesting a Netflix night or a spa break/golf weekend. It is not about pamper packages, a wax or new pyjamas and a movie night…though – and this is the complex part – it can be sometimes and this is the challenge: how does one know/trust/really see when one really does need a night off and that night off is not just a way of avoiding doing the things that really need to be done…
Conscious Self-Care is not about consuming but about creating: creating a foundation within the self that helps your life feel more often like one worth living with enthusiasm.
Conscious Self-Care is about taking care of the things that are causing you harm in the short and long term – the things that are rarely as glamorous or as comfortable as a spa or a luxury chocolate bar… It is sorting out the debt you are in, it is realising that a loved but ageing parent is better off in a home than being cared for by you, it is learning those difficult but important skills that you keep saying you will acquire. It is seeing that every night you spend not listening to and acting on your genuine needs, every night spent doing what feels familiar and comfortable, is another night that you are not really living.
It is about releasing yourself from the ‘should’s by action, or by letting go of them so that you can then, hopefully, find a new sense of emotional freedom.
Here are the actions I am looking at as well as the ‘letting go’s I am working on:
- Take action to speak Italian and learn/practise most days.
- Take action to write most days.
- Take action to exercise and meditate most days.
- Take action to put the boundaries I need around my personal time and space.
- Take action to make the things I desire happen.
- Take action to speak honestly of my feelings to the people I care about.
- Let go of needing to be perfect.
- Let go of feeling like I need to be available all day every day.
If I took these actions even half as often as I should, then I believe that much of my anxiety would be removed. I am very aware of and understand the fact that even making, or planning to make, these kinds of changes, is just another possible stick to beat the self with. The stick labelled: ‘All would be okay if I just ticked these boxes every day!’ But, in truth, it is not about ridding myself of all anxiety and discomfort but about acknowledging that my own habit of retreating into books, bars of chocolate and glazed-over phone scrolling when I am stressed or feeling overwhelmed is less than helpful to me. That these activities can be fun occasionally but that awareness of the power of positive habits, the having of some difficult conversations, the taking of challenging action with regard to my own time, as well as a willingness to work at a few projects with some consistency, is also a big key to my long term well-being.
The action and letting go ideas are very much linked to and influenced by Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
This is a piece of writing that sits outside of the Christian tradition it has been adopted by, and is very much aligned with Zen Buddhism and other non-Christian religions and spiritualities.
To learn to accept some things and change others, to know the difference between a helpful ‘should’ and a harmful one, we need to understand what it is that we really need and then, with kindness, to take action or start to let go based on this understanding and knowledge. How do we identify these needs? Well, this will take time and attention. It is often best to start with some gentle journalling or a talk with someone you trust. You can also get in touch with me. Take a look at the services I offer in supporting change and growth here and, in the meantime, I hope that your own drumbeat of ‘should’s has been seen for the rhythm of potential change and growth that it can be.