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Have you ever thought about the meaning behind the words should or want?

I have.

Really, I have.

Because I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should be doing.

I think most people in their twenties do. I think about how I should be doing xyz at work to get ahead. How I should be behaving this way or that to keep a friendship or relationship going.

I think a lot of it is fueled by my anxiety in general, but also the will to achieve. Since childhood, I’ve had this mindset that as long as I do the things I “should” everything will work out, that I will hit the milestones I’m meant to, etc. But I’m realizing that I may not find happiness by living life this way. That if I’m achieving things I “should” it may not make me feel happy. That I’ll still feel empty or alone when I reach all the “shoulds.”

Recently, I had an “awakening” when a friend gave me some advice and clarity that floored me. We were laying on a picnic blanket in the park near my new apartment, having a snack, and soaking up the sunshine. We were also rehashing our evening out because the night before we had gone out for drinks to celebrate my birthday and so my friend could meet the guy I was dating. Needless to say, we were a teensy bit hungover.

I was lamenting on how I had probably had too much wine, that I shouldn’t have had so much to drink, that I should have behaved better. My friend, Sasha, reminded me that it was my birthday and I was allowed to have fun, AND that I hadn’t done anything illegal or embarrassing so nothing was wrong. That I didn’t have to feel guilty about anything. But I couldn’t let go.

“I know but I was tipsy and I think I said too much to John. I should have been smarter.” I said, practically wailing. My anxiety was higher than it had been in ages.

“I liked him, I think he had fun! Don’t worry so much.” Sasha tried to calm me down.

“I just feel like I embarrassed myself. I should text him to check in.” And I’d reach for my phone, type a message, and then delete it before I hit “send.”

And around and around we went, hashing and rehashing the smallest moments. I was so worked up, my anxiety gouging my stomach to the point of my wanting to throw up.

Finally, she said this: I’m hearing a lot about what you think you should be doing, and nothing about what you want to be doing.

“What?” I sat up from my prone position on the picnic blanket and uncovered my eyes.

“You’re so worried about what you think should happen, or what you should do. What do you want to do? What do you want to happen?” She asked me, as if this was an obvious question.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean, do you want to text him? Right now, do you feel like texting him?”

“No…honestly I feel sick and tired and I just want to lay here in the sunshine and then go pet that dog.”

“Then put your phone down. We’re going to do what you want.” And we got up, made friends with a very fluffy puppy named Kevin (name NOT changed, this was his real name!) and I tried my best to take deep breaths and live in the moment, doing what I wanted.

Her comment stayed with me. Maybe it seems obvious to you, or trivial, but I was floored. Could it be…that easy? To just do what you want? What would people think? What would they say?

Did it even matter, really, what other people thought? Did other people’s thoughts help me achieve? No. The answer to both of those questions was no.

Since that moment in the park, I’ve heard Sasha’s voice in my head over and over again asking me what do you want to do?

And I’ve really started to listen and answer.

By letting go of this “should” mindset, I’m slowly learning to relax, to let my shoulders drop away from my ears, and trust my instincts. I’m trying to turn off the “you should be doing this” banner that rings in my head and focus on what I’m passionate about, what I am excited about, and what I really want to be doing.

And it’s working, I’m finding more forward momentum and less “stuck-ness.” As I job search, I’ve focused on companies I’m really excited about, and focus on making true connections with people, not just the dreaded “sell-yourself-networking-connections.”

Slowly but surely I’m changing my mindset for the better. And I say slowly, because it takes work. It’s a constant battle to re-route myself when I feel the familiar panic of should creep back in.

Permanent progress takes time, small steps, some backwards but most forwards, and gentleness. But now, I’m seeing that if I focus on what I want to be doing rather than what I should be doing, I will continue to achieve my goals and still feel happy and feel like myself.