Curing a Case of the Shoulds

By Kerry Schafer

Yesterday I relapsed with a bad case of The Shoulds.

For those of you who are not familiar with this disorder, it is pervasive, dangerous, and can be lethal to the creative process. Unfortunately, medical science has yet to come up with a vaccination and there is no known permanent cure. It’s one of those diseases you have to live with and manage – like diabetes.

I know I’m not alone with my affliction, because I see signs and symptoms that the rest of you have also caught this disease. My evidence? Posts on Facebook and Twitter that look a lot like this:

“I should be writing.”
“Oops, yeah you caught me. I should be working on that synopsis.”

See the word “should” in all of these examples? Yep. That’s a dead giveaway, one of the more blatant forms of a case of The Shoulds. Note the following more sneaky manifestations, again of the type often seen in social media:

“Ugh. I’m supposed to be working on my word count.”
“I’m meant to be writing. But you know. Talking cats. Hahaha.”

Note the clever use of “supposed to” and “meant to be,” which really mean the same thing as should.

I pulled a definition from Google, just for fun:

“Should: verb, used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.”

Criticizing is such a nifty word, isn’t it? And criticism of self or others is one of the debilitating effects of the Shoulds.

Still, the above examples are relatively harmless cases. Probably you won’t die from the disease in this form, although it is still likely to affect your creativity and productivity.

The Shoulds are much more dangerous when evidenced by the following types of statements:

I should be published by now.
I should have finished this book months ago.
I should be writing in a different genre.
I should write faster, better, bigger. I should be a best seller. I should be able to quit my day job. I should be a perfect parent, lover, house keeper and writer and manage a day job all simultaneously while smiling and having a good time and always being nice to everybody.

Let me ask you this – what good does this sort of talk do you? It smacks of guilt, self disparagement, hopelessness and helplessness.

Should is not an action word.

Now, take a statement like this, which was probably written in the recent past by me:

“I should be writing, but I’m hanging out here instead.”

Words carry a great deal of power. Should implies that I believe I’m doing something wrong, but am too weak willed to walk way from this social media screen that has somehow magically opened in front of me. That I’m too morally bankrupt to be able to go write the words that I say I want to write. It also carries an underlying message that there are others out there – my mother, society at large, maybe even God – looking over my shoulder and making sniffy noises at my lack of discipline.

But if I switch out the should construction with an action verb, something like choose, everything changes:

“I choose to write now,” is a statement of an entirely different flavor. Or, alternately, “I choose not to write now. I’m going to hang out on FB with my friends.”

This is a significant thought shift. Either I have just set myself up to go get some word count in, or I’ve made an active decision to keep doing what I’m doing – guilt free, and by choice.

One version is vaguely self critical, helpless, with a victim-of-fate sort of feel to it. The other is strong and leads to either a change of action, or an acknowledgement that the action you are already engaged in is undertaken by choice, not because somehow you drifted into it. This allows you to assume the responsibility for your own behavior.

The same sort of shift works for the more complicated should constructions as well, they just require a little more finesse with the reframe.

“I should have an agent by now” becomes, “I choose to start looking for an agent,” or “I choose to wait.” Maybe it gets refined into something like, “I will send out ten queries this week, and a replacement query for every rejection.”

“I should have finished that book by now,” becomes, “I will write 500 words a day, five days a week.” Or even the much simpler, “I’m going to spend the next hour working on my book.”

Speaking of which, I have frittered a lot of time this morning so far. It’s time to get some writing done. Not because I should, but because I choose to.

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About Kerry Schafer

Kerry Schafer is licensed both as a Mental Health Professional and an RN, and spends most of her daylight hours helping people--usually even with a smile. In books, she gets to blow stuff up, preferably with something more interesting than a bomb. Dragons are good; exploding giant slime toads are even better. She has published two novels with Ace Books: Between and Wakeworld. She is also the author of The Dream Wars novellas. Kerry and her Viking live in Colville, Washington, in a little house surrounded by rocks, trees, and gangs of deer and wild turkeys.

5 thoughts on “Curing a Case of the Shoulds

  1. Susan Mark

    I like this change in language. I have a tendency to “should” all over myself, as I’ve heard it put. It’s draining. It’s OK to choose to relax sometimes without having to carry all the “shoulds.”

    Reply
  2. B.E. Sanderson

    That was a most excellent post, Kerry. I have the ‘Shoulds’ more often than I’d like to admit. For instance, last night, I should have written, but I was too tired from raking pea gravel in the driveway. Better to think of it as ‘yesterday I chose to work on the driveway which wore me out, so I chose to write this morning because I felt better.’ =o)

    Reply

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