From Should to Want: a Small but Giant Step

“Should” is a word that haunts. It’s my own personal ghost.

I should do the laundry. I should get up early. I should eat healthier. I should go for a run. I should be more positive…

A friend of mine recently recommended that I listen to an episode of the Death, Sex and Money podcast where actress Ellen Burston shares her concept of “shouldless” days. The short version is, every once and a while, Burston will set aside a day where she purposely avoids the “should” task list and instead allows her wants run her schedule. Ice cream for breakfast? Fair game on shouldless days.

I’m not sure about you, but I found this concept incredibly freeing–a breath of fresh air in my world governed by to do lists. Believe it or not, I’ve actually made a ton of progress in not allowing the shoulds to dominate my life the way they once did. However, this blog and my conversations with you all have drawn my attention to one area where should still rattles its chains in my psyche: I feel like I should be a joyful person.

The inverse of this? I feel like I shouldn’t be a negative person. Consequently, when I feel anger, sadness, annoyance, frustration and other not-so-happy emotions, something clicks on in my head that I’m failing–that I’m behaving poorly–that my emotions are wrong.

WHAT MADNESS IS THIS? I’m almost embarrassed to write about this recent aha. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I bawled like a baby watching Inside Out last week because I realized something inside me feels like I should embody Joy at all times. I often force feelings of happiness because joy must be the solution to all problems, right? Okay–I’m not almost embarrassed it’s taken me this long to face this habit of mine.
I am embarrassed.


I also feel enlightened. Conversations about what it looks like to aspire for joy have helped me make an important distinction, not only in this blog, but in my life as well. Let me back up and share six morsels I’ve gleaned from my discussions with many of you about what it means to choose a joyful attitude:

1. A lot comes down to the way we are wired. Some people wake up in the morning, looking for the good in the day. Others find themselves wringing their hands, moments after rising from their pillows. There are extremes of both (the annoyingly positive and the depressingly negative) and those who ride the pendulum back and forth. We must remember that we are beautifully made and do not need to get on our cases for being who we are.

2. Our feelings are our own, and they all are pretty darn important. So we should stop denying them, dang it! Feelings provide our bodies with valuable information about our situations and how we perceive ourselves within them. A wise friend said it like this: “Ignoring your feelings can lead to a failure to take fine advice from your body. Feelings can be the ultimate gas light.” Failing to pay attention to that “gas light”–failing to stop and refuel–can lead us to bad and sometimes dangerous conclusions: Why not power through being abused if we force ourselves to find the positive parts of the relationship? Why not keep driving into that toxic work environment if we just keep looking for the joys that must be hidden somewhere? Again–madness! Especially when the warning signs are right there in front of us.

3. Societal expectations do nothing to help our habitual denial of feelings. How often have women felt that it’s not socially acceptable to be angry–even if it’s a righteous anger? And don’t men feel pressure not to shed tears in public? I’ve heard one person express of the work place that feelings are something to be held inside where attitude is an outward mask we show our coworkers. Wearing such masks is probably enough fodder for an entirely separate blog. That’s not even mentioning that the goal to stop dwelling on the negative seems to be a luxury of the privileged population, and yet the underprivileged population seems to be a lot better at finding the positive during tough times…

4. Danger comes from feeling like you should choose joy, but the conversation changes if you want to choose joy. This small shift of verbiage flips everything on its butt. Suddenly, instead of cowering into submission before the parental, external pressure of should, you are broadening your perspective with the intrinsic driver of want. Instead of running away from your feelings because you think they are bad, you are letting them percolate. You are taking a breath, looking at the full picture and examining whether your feelings are functioning as blinders or sirens. You are staying open, looking for truth in the situation and discernment of how to respond to said truth.

5. The feelings dialogue takes practice. I had several people point out that learning how to sit in the feelings stew without boiling over is harder for children than adults. Many parents struggle to give their kiddos structure in learning how to search for truth amidst their intense feelings. Many adults say it’s easier to let old frustrations roll off as they get older. Others say that age is not the driving factor here, but experience is. Choosing how negativity affects us is easier if we are prepared for its coming or have more practice in processing it. A young child, for example, is fully capable of grasping these complex emotional conversations; he has just had less experience processing the anger he feels at bed time for reasons he doesn’t understand. And a fully grown adult who encounters negativity in what she thought was her safe place might have a full melt down. Experience and preparedness teach us that some negativity is not worth our precious energy, so we can move past it easier.

6. Everyone has different ideas of how to get this practice. Often, it involves finding a way to distract the instinctual response so that you can sit in your emotions honestly and openly, aiming to broaden your perspective. But this looks different for everyone.

  • Sometimes it means getting active: play basketball, dance, walk, run.
  • Sometimes it means doing something productive: mow the lawn, do the dishes, fold laundry.
  • Sometimes it means looking for the humor in the situation: laugh at how seriously you’re taking yourself.
  • Sometimes it means getting out of your head: talk with a friend or family member you trust to listen and not try and fix things for you.
  • Sometimes, though, it means making a decision that your anger or frustration is worth spending some time on: make a pros/cons chart, create a plan to change your situation or accept the challenge ahead in a way you feel empowered.

Aim for forward movement instead of dwelling in stagnation, but only after you’ve let yourself learn from being stagnant for a bit. Here’s another friend’s beautiful analogy: “Personally, I see my attitude as kind of a bigger perspective umbrella and my feelings as things hitting that umbrella. My attitude takes the hit of my feelings (and feels them), but I can let them bounce off when I’m done feeling and still have that same attitude. Or I can let them change my umbrella completely.”

So there you have it: six morsels of conversation that seem like common sense as I write them, but perhaps they are not so common.  I, myself, am still learning what it means to watch for the gas light while simultaneously trying to decide what umbrella I’m holding. Not sure this is one of those situations where a mixed metaphor like this works… But this I do know: no longer will I live like I should be a positive Pollyanna.

Instead, my aspiring for joy will be shouldless–rooted in a more authentic want–looking to my feelings for perspective. I’m beyond honored that so many of you walk with me as we all learn how to practice what this actually looks like. Godspeed, my friends.

2 thoughts on “From Should to Want: a Small but Giant Step

  1. Suzi

    Jen! We haven’t talked in ages, but I’ve enjoyed reading your posts so far. I donated to Death, Sex and Money so I could get the should-less day mug (and because I love the show). The concept was SO freeing for me. I’m not perfect at letting go of should yet, but I’m getting better.

    I’ve been gratitude journaling for a few months which has been a good way to frame my day positively (and, honestly, sometimes to make a rough day/situation more tolerable). But you make an excellent point that we should be sure to honor the other emotions, too. Perhaps being grateful for the anger I feel is something I should consider in writing in my journal instead of always ignoring it in favor of other more mundane things I can be grateful for. You’ve definitely given me something to ponder. Thanks for sharing!


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