When this post is published, I shall be holed up with my partner is a cottage on the beach on the south coast. Back in August, we decided to have a getaway from Christmas Day until New Year’s Eve. We found the right accommodation on the same day and booked up immediately. It’s only as Christmas has drawn closer that I’ve begun to question our decision. I’ve never regretted our choice – on the contrary, I think it’s a brilliant idea, all the fun of the festive build up but none of the hassle and anti-climax – but it has raised big questions about my sense of obligation. Should a good daughter not see her parents on at least one of these days? Should a good auntie miss Christmas with the fast growing children? Should a good daughter-in-law whisk her partner away from his family at this time of year? Should I be allowed to do what I want rather than what others expect of me?
The cunning among you may have spotted that all these questions are united by that most dreaded of compulsions, ‘should’. As any pop-psychology book will tell you, use of the word should (and its close cousin, ought) is a sure sign that you don’t actually want to do something but feel somehow compelled to by pressure, be it societal, familial or even internal.
Christmas is a classic time when should based decisions come to the fore. You may want to stop at home with your young children but feel obliged to drag them round all the grandparents instead. You may want to cut down on your spending but feel it would cause uproar if you stopped buying gifts for all the extended family. You may want to opt out of Secret Santa at work but fear you’ll look like killjoy if you do. I could list fifty more examples off the top of my head.
Alas the Christmas shoulds are compounded by the New Year ones. It is a rare person who hasn’t at some point in their lives made a resolution at the end of December based on something they feel they should do.
The perennial favourite is weight; many of us know that feeling that we should lose a stone – or three. My personal bete noir has been growing my nails. I’ve felt obliged to quit picking my nails since at least age six. Every year I’d vow that was it with my disgusting habit. For the start of 1999, I even vowed that I would ‘Grow my nails like Jenni’s’, Jenni being a friend at college whose hands I greatly admired. It took me sixteen years, yes sixteen years, to fully acknowledge how ridiculous that particular variant of the resolution was. My own sheer willpower is not enough to overcome genetics. My own vision of ‘how things should be’ will not override the reality of how my nails look.
I finally realised this and accepted the truth of my hands when using the bathroom on a research trip to UC Davis in July 2015. It was a very precise moment, like a thunderbolt. This is how my hands are, I thought, and how much more mental energy do I want to expend fighting that? Not a lot, it turns out, and I’ve had a more harmonious relationship with the bits on the ends of my arms since. If only it were so easy with every other ‘should’ that crosses my mind!
That said, there is one useful lesson I have learnt from overcoming my belief that I should grow my nails like Jenni’s, and that is that naming the sense of obligation can help to dispel it. Externalising it, rather than keeping it in our heads and our hearts like a dirty secret that we are betraying, can seriously undermine its power. I don’t just believe that this applies to me; I feel that anyone could benefit from talking about their most controlling sense of should with another person or even journalling about it.
Therefore ahead of this New Year’s Eve, I encourage you to make a list of the 12 Great Shoulds in your life – one for each month of the year. What dozen shoulds or oughts make you feel obliged and trapped? As my example of ‘growing my nails like Jenni’s’ suggests, the more ludicrous the better!
Here are the 12 Great Shoulds that continue to taunt me:
- I should be 7.5 stone because that’s the weight I was at some point in 1997 (aged 15)
- I should always have a tidy basket of spare towels, perfectly folded and stacked
- My car footwells should always look like they’ve just been vacuumed
- I should never ever miss the birthday of a friend or family member because this makes me an evil and uncaring person (this has been an especially tough one in 2016 as my mental health struggles have made remembering birthdays and getting to send cards difficult)
- I should maintain every aspect of my house to an exacting standard of cleanliness and taste. Every. Single. Thing.
- I should be better at yoga than I am. In fact, I should be considering yogi training.
- I should always have a completely full tank of petrol. Even when I’ve just returned from a long journey, I ought to have filled to the very top again en route.
- I should never ever need to use an ATM but ought to have a reasonable quantity of cash upon my at all times.
- I should always have six months of savings put to one side
- I should not display any pictures of myself or of me and my partner together anywhere in our home
- I should pack away all the garden furniture and plant tubs at the onset of autumn and not leave them out over winter (can you tell that’s a current nagging guilt?)
- I should not experience or display any sign of human nature but rather maintain an aura of complete perfection at all times and on every occasion. To reveal even the slightest weakness or flaw amounts to total failure.