Attack of the “Shoulds”
“I should be happy.”
“I should be having a great time.”
“I should have been appreciating the moment with my daughter. Instead, my mind was on the laundry that needed to get done, and how to get her down for her nap, and…”
These are thoughts expressed by some of my clients. I’ve also had them myself. Not that “shoulds” are relegated to parents alone, but I know that for me, they’ve gotten a lot louder since I had a baby. And the “shoulds” are toxic to mental health.
Whenever we think in terms of what we should be feeling, we’re judging ourselves. In a lot of cases, that judgment is what produces the most emotional distress. According to dialectical behavior therapy (which is great for teaching how to handle overwhelming emotions), primary emotions are the initial feeling (sadness, anger, fear, disappointment) in response to an event. That event might be internal or external. But something’s happened, and we’re reacting to it.
If we leave it at that–if we simply feel the feeling–generally it will dissipate. We’ll realize what we want to do about it, or we might not need to do anything. But we allow the emotion to register, which is what emotion really wants. It wants to matter.
The real problem, most often, is the secondary emotion. That’s the feeling we have when we’ve judged our primary emotion. For example: “I shouldn’t be sad. I have a great life.” Therefore, we’ve deemed ourselves bad or ungrateful. We’re seeing ourselves in a more globally negative way. That’s bound to cause trouble.
I never used to be very “should”-prone. But since having my daughter, it’s like the stakes have been raised. I want so much for her, and I want so much to create the right environment for her. (See the judgment in that last sentence? The “right” environment, like there’s only one.) Correspondingly, I find myself much more prone to depression than I ever was before.
Recently, I had a breakthrough. I realized that I just don’t like this first stage of motherhood, the first year. I know that many parents love it. They’ve told me so, as they pass me in the grocery store: “Savor these moments! They’re the best.”
I can understand why some people love this stage. Babies are cute. Their heads smell sweet. It’s great when they fall asleep on you. They can’t defy you too much.
I like plenty of individual moments and I sure love that baby, but somehow, it hasn’t added up to a satisfying whole. This first year often feels like something I just need to get through. I wouldn’t mind if it went by a little quicker.
Now, this might seem like a scandalous admission. Blasphemous, even. After all, I’m supposed to love being a mom, right from the get-go. It should fit me like a glove, shouldn’t it?
The truth is, I always knew that I’d enjoy the later stages much more. I can’t wait until she talks, for example, even if it does mean more talking back. I think that I’m going to appreciate her more with each successive stage, which means that this first chunk of time is not my favorite.
And that’s okay.
It’s hard-won, that last bit. Because over this past year, I’ve been fighting to change how I feel. I’ve been aiming for greater appreciation of what I do like, and the minimization of what I don’t. In and of itself, nothing wrong with that. But sometimes it’s better to just accept a feeling without judgment, to say: “This first stage isn’t my favorite. I’m not happy as much as I’m used to being in life. And I love my daughter very much. So it’s okay.”
Since I’ve allowed myself my unhappiness, I’ve been less unhappy. Paradoxical, but true. Remove the judgment and lose the depression. What was turning my feelings from momentary unhappiness into depression was the belief that I shouldn’t have those feelings. That I’m a lesser mother because of them.
What makes a person a lesser parent is spending too much time in self-judgment. That’s what really pulls you away from the present moment. If you get lost in self-recrimination, it’s that much harder to bond with your child.
Instead, acknowledge to yourself that you’re having a bad day. That you feel sad, or lonely, or disappointed, or overwhelmed. Tell yourself that it’s okay. It’ll pass. Everything does.
Unhappy woman photo available from Shutterstock
Brown, H. (2012). Attack of the “Shoulds”. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/bonding-time/2012/11/attack-of-the-shoulds/