It’s a long-standing tradition that at New Year’s, we make a vow of self-improvement for the year to come.
We promise ourselves that beginning on New Year’s Day, we’ll be the person we should be. We’ll eat healthier, we’ll exercise more, we’ll make new friends, we’ll save more money, we’ll spend less time watching Netflix and more time chasing our dreams (but what if watching Nashville is my dream?)
We make these resolutions year after year. We set ourselves obscene goals, and rarely achieve them. And this is partly because of the language we use when setting our New Year’s resolutions.
At least for me, the thought-pattern behind resolving to run everyday is that ‘I should be running everyday’, ‘I shouldn’t be so lazy’, and ‘I must improve my fitness.’ But these statements start from the wrong place.
Rather than being a call to action, they come from a place of self-deprecation and criticism. ‘Should-ing’ and ‘must-ing’ implies our current self isn’t good enough as it is, and this can cause a great deal of emotional distress.
Women in particular are big ‘should-ers’. And the pressure isn’t entirely self-generated. We have multiple industries telling us what we should and shouldn’t be doing, as well as popular culture obsessively representing how women should look and behave, and what they should value (your butt, you should value your butt). So it’s not surprising that we’ve internalised this voice.
It’s quite bizarre when we start to interrogate it. My internal monologue can sound something like this: “I should wear nightcream, why don’t I own nightcream? What is nightcream? I really shouldn’t wash my hair so often. I should get laser. I should be doing squats…heaps of memes on the internet tell me to do my squats. I also shouldn’t let boys be mean to me.”
So that’s why this year, I’m making an anti-resolution.
I’m going to stop with the ‘should-ing’ and the ‘must-ing’. Because the emotional toll of these self-statements is far too high.
Clinical psychologists say that unhelpful thinking styles such as ‘should-ing’ and ‘must-ing’ can result in unhelpful emotions such as frustration, anger and disappointment, and can lead to more serious mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
Watch Mia Freedman discuss how she manages her anxiety. Post continues after video.
The role of a clinical psychologist, then, is to challenge the client who appeals to ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements to explain their negative emotions: Where does this sense of obligation come from? Who sets these expectations? What would happen if you were to let go of them? The client is reminded that many of these statements place unreasonable demands and pressures on us, and for no productive reason.
So what should we do in the place of should-ing? All this talk of should-ing makes us feel like we’re being told we shouldn’t be should-ing, which doesn’t seem like something that should be happening, given the problematic nature of should-ing in the first place.
But the liberating alternative to should-ing is choosing. When we
‘I should go for a run everyday’, becomes ‘I choose to go for a run everyday’, and ‘choosing’ means it’s a choice, not a chore.
When you find yourself should-ing – interrogate it. Who says I should, and why? Enter 2016 knowing that you are enough just as you are. You are not always ‘a work in progress’ and you are not constantly ‘failing to measure up.’ Although, you have the agency to set a goal and work towards it if you desire.
This year, let’s reject the term ‘should’ when thinking about New Year’s Resolutions. If we want to change something, let’s choose it.