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By Katelyn Hanzel

“Should” is one of those words that permeates our lives we can’t even comprehend how often we use it. Worse, we probably also can’t comprehend how deeply certain ideas of “correctness” are engrained in us, and how much our thoughts, emotions and choices are created by them.

As my life progresses, I know I am not alone in becoming increasingly conscious of how often the concept of “should” appears in my mental and emotional spaces, how the word is used by the people around me, and how I use it in my day-to-day existence, aloud and in my inner monologue. And I’m not sure I like the frequency with which the word pops up.

The dictionary definition of “should” is as the auxiliary function to express condition, obligation, propriety or expediency, what is probable or expected.

As kids, “should” shows up in gentle life lessons from our parents. We are taught that we should brush our teeth once in the morning and once in the evening; we should share our toys with our siblings/relatives/friends because it is the nice thing to do; we should eat our fruits and veggies so that we can grow up to be big and strong. When we’re little, should is meant to be a guiding word, an encouraging suggestion to help us understand the world around us and come into our own autonomy.

While we work on the whole “growing up” thing, should continues to show up as a guiding word – and it functions well as that – but as we get older it also starts appearing in comments some would consider to be encouraging… and assumptive, judgmental, policing, or stereotypical. We should get involved in extracurricular activities, and there should probably be more than one to make sure we’re well-rounded; we should aim to take AP classes and PSEO courses before graduating high school so we look as attractive to universities as possible; she should/shouldn’t be wearing abc item of clothing because of xyz reason; he should like sports but he shouldn’t like theatre because he’s a straight male; we should know what we want to do with our lives long term even though we’re only seventeen or eighteen.

Once the “growing up” process is more or less complete, college happens (for some of us), and should starts hugging us tighter and tighter, still trying and succeeding in being helpful, but starting to be more conflicting, too. We should major in something that will support us financially later in life (note: supporting yourself financially is vital in life, and choosing a pursuit that will help with that is highly recommended); we should also get involved in things that support our passions; we should be experiencing internships as soon as possible; we should be careful not to overload ourselves, but we should have our hands in multiple baskets to be sure we’re making the most of “the best years of our lives;” we should chase after our dreams but we should also be realistic.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere even though we’ve been building up to this moment for roughly twenty-two years, we graduate college, consider ourselves full-blown adults, and burst into the “real world” with brilliance and gusto, a dash of fear and a sprinkling of self-doubt, and an overwhelming sensation of what should I be doing next?

The universe is filled with mind-boggling dichotomies. Some of these dichotomies are argument-fueling, others are peace-inducing, handfuls of them exist without anyone really ever understanding why. And more often than not, should can be found floating around all of them.

Please don’t misunderstand, I believe in the positive “should.
I believe that for the sake of my well-being and overall health and balance in life, I should:

– Drink enough water.
– Have somewhat of an idea about, and make plans for where I want to be in my future life and how I want to get there.

I also believe in the common sense should, in the sense that I think all people should:

– Use their blinkers when they drive.
– Agree to start school days later, when the human brain is naturally more awake, and when multiple age groups’ natural sleep cycles are acknowledged.

My opinion is obviously one of billions, and of course I’m not the authoritative voice on anything, nor do I want to tell anyone how to live their life. Which leads me to my most important point: should can be toxic. Toxic in a personal sense, a professional sense, a societal sense. Toxic mentally, emotionally, physically, psychologically. Toxic to all ages and all life decisions. Should appears in our lives almost immediately, and it sticks around as part of a fluid, occasionally vicious cycle that will never end so long as we are human. All of the lessons we learn as we go through life have a unique and important flip side to them – and just because we believe something should be one way, doesn’t mean that one way is the be-all, end-all until the world ends. Take the stages of life, for example:

– Little kids should share their toys – but boys shouldn’t be taught that they can’t play with dolls, and girls shouldn’t be taught that they can’t play with dinosaurs.
– Tweens and teens should be involved in multiple activities in and out of school, but twelve-year-olds shouldn’t be having panic attacks over college acceptances.
– College students should be realistic and seek solid ways to support themselves financially – but they shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing something they are passionate about (especially the arts, because creative and expressive outlets are VITAL to self-care and mental/emotional health).
– Once we get out into the real world, we should be wondering what’s going to happen next in our life – but we shouldn’t feel that there is a certain path we should be taking in order to guarantee the most success.

See? Should permeates our lives at multiple depths. And if the above examples are a touch too heavy to wrap your mind around at this precise moment, here are some others that may be more relatable:

– I should go running after work today.
– I should have a date/plans tonight.
– I should be so much more successful by now.
– I should be taking more risks.

There are so many times when I catch myself thinking I should do this, I should have said that, or something similar. I am my own worst critic, harshest judge, cheeriest cheerleader, and fiercest advocate, along with so much more, and the shoulds in my life can kill me daily and guilt me into just about anything if I give them the power to. But I do not want to give power to the shoulds. Instead, I want to give power to the desires, the craves, to the tugs on the corner of my soul that encourage me to reach with my palms and heart wide open toward the stuff that’s going to change me.

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