How to write your way out of the chokehold of shoulds


Two of the most damaging words in the English language are “I should.”

I should be able to…
I should be more like…
I should be focusing on…
I should feel…

I should. I should. I should.

All of the shoulds are so loud at times that they drown out the quiet voice of wisdom inside of you, and the voice that longs to burst out onto the page.

How many shoulds have you felt today? Each should is like a manacle, chaining you to a reality that isn’t your own.

Do you ever feel like you're suffocated under a mountain of shoulds? Read this.Click To Tweet

I too am plagued by shoulds.

Here are a few of them:

  • I should work more.
  • I should be more nurturing.
  • I should love what I do every day.
  • I should be making more money.
  • I should wake up earlier.
  • I should be more disciplined.

These, and many other shoulds, cluster around me everyday, shouting so loud I can barely hear the sweet wise voice that just wants me to love myself, to be present, to be gentle with myself.

What if, instead of listening to the shoulds, you (we) could listen to that small, brilliant voice inside? The voice that wants to play, to explore, to just accept yourself as the unique, flawed, beautiful person you are?

When I’m able to listen to my intuition, and to write with my honest, clear voice, it gives me the courage to pursue the life I want.

Instead of tiptoeing around my dreams in fear, it allows me to boldly tread toward them. Even more importantly, it brings me immense joy in my present life.

But how do you silence the shoulds and listen to the voice that’s crouched inside of you, singing sweetly in a tune all its own? Here are a few things that help me.

1. Write about the present moment.

One of the best things you can do to silence the voice of should is to give voice to what is.

When I write “what is,” I mean what is actually, physically, surrounding you. The coffee cup next to your laptop, steaming into the air. Your dog curled up on the couch. The bowl of blackberries next to you on the table. The aching feeling at the back of your neck.

Try this:

For 10 minutes, set a timer and write about everything you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel.

Stay in your living room, or in your local coffee shop. Notice what lives and breathes around you. Gather those details around your body like a cloak. The more you allow what is present to filter through, the more you’ll be able to quiet the voice that wants something absent.

When I do this exercise, I am able to appreciate the mundane details of this moment, and to see that all of the shoulds are taking me away from my life exactly as it is.

2. Write true stories about your life.

The sad thing about the chorus of shoulds is they often keep us from examining our own lives and being honest about our experiences.

A few years ago, I was forced to resign from my teaching job. I was left questioning myself and my worth as a person. I felt so much shame around that experience that I avoided writing into the details.

But once I owned the details of that story, of the tears flowing down my cheeks on field day that year, of the moments sitting with my students on the black carpet covered with peace signs, of the joy in my students’ faces when they understood concepts I taught, I realized that my being asked to resign had nothing to do with my teaching.

I was able to see that I had been caught up in the political web of the public school system. And while I am a great teacher, I am not good at bureaucracy and politics.

When you write your own stories, down to the nitty gritty details, you own them. You can then mine them for insights on yourself, and you can lovingly lay them down and stop shoulding yourself into oblivion.

Write your stories. Then you can lay down your shoulds and see the truth of who you are. Click To Tweet

Try this:

Set a timer for 15 minutes, and then write a true story about your life.

You can start with one from a long time ago, if that feels less scary. Write about something you’ve been carrying with you. Don’t judge yourself. Just write into the details.

Where were you? How did you feel? Who else was there? What happened? Writing your story will help you own it. It will release its hold on you, and you can stop shouldering it like a heavy backpack.

3. Share your stories with other women.

I teach women’s writing workshops where we sit around a table and share our stories with each other.

Often, it feels hard at first. We all want to write what we think everyone else wants to hear.

Women apologize. They say, “Sorry this is sad,” or “I don’t know if I followed the prompt, but here goes.”

But when a woman has the courage to share her story without polishing it, when she shares something true that has happened, it touches a deep truth in the rest of us. We gather around her story and say, “Yes. I relate to that. Yes. That feels true to me.” And then we all feel less alone.

When you share your true stories with other women, you release them. Instead of locking them up because you don’t think they show you in the way you want to be seen, you allow them to come into the light. And in doing so, you, and the other women hearing your story feel less alone.

You’re able to celebrate who you actually are.

Try this:

Get together with 2 or 3 women you trust, and write together. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Everyone write about a time they felt ashamed.

Then, after the timer goes off, each of you read your story aloud. Listen to each other without judgement. You can offer feedback if you want, but make sure its affirming. Tell the other women how their stories made you feel. Share what you could relate to. Connect around your shared stories. You will feel more whole afterward.

4. Make writing your stories a habit.

Every day, or once a week, set a timer for 15 minutes and write your stories. You can reread them if you want. You can call a friend and share them if you want. But write them down.

Follow these rules:

  • Be honest
  • Write the sensory details
  • Trust yourself
  • Don’t stop writing for the whole 15 minutes

Here are a few prompts to get you started:

  • Write about a time you felt lonely
  • Write about a moment you stood up for yourself
  • Write about a time you felt proud
  • Write about a friend you loved and lost
  • Write about someone you loved who hurt you
  • Write about someone who taught you a lesson about life
  • Write about a moment of wonder
  • Write about something that happened to you this week

The more you write, the more you ink your voice out onto the page, the less you’ll focus on the shoulds and the more you’ll lean into the truth of your life.

5. Write the shoulds down.

Anytime you hear a “should” in your head, write it down. Keep a pad of paper nearby, or a file on your computer as a repository. Think of it as an ongoing monologue by the evil dictator between your ears. You can even draw the dictator, name her, give her a personality.

But write them down. And change them from “I” to “you.”

You should go to sleep earlier.
You should get more exercise.
You should have handled that conversation differently.
You should have prepared more for that class.

Whatever shoulds come up, get them out of your head and onto the page. Then read them, acknowledge them, and go back to being the beautiful, messy human you are.

Or, if you want, you could write a counterargument for each:

You should go to sleep earlier. I love staying up late reading. It brings me joy.

You should get more exercise. Sitting on the couch eating cookies makes me happy. Plus I went to the gym yesterday, so lay off.

You should have handled that conversation differently. Instead of berating myself, maybe I can reach out and have another conversation with my friend. Or I can learn for next time.

You should have prepared more for that class. I could have prepared more, but I was having too much fun being out with my friends. I loved my time with them. I can always prepare better next time.

Airing out your shoulds makes them less likely to trip you up and get you down. It quiets them so that you can get on with your day.

The next time you find yourself deafened by all of your shoulds:

  • Write about the present moment
  • Write your true stories
  • Share your stories with other women
  • Make writing your stories a habit
  • Write your shoulds down

You’ll be happier, closer to your truth, and more able to accept yourself for the incredible person you are.

  • Jo

    Just wanted to say thanks for your blog posts this year. I love reading them for the very reasons you mention in this article – they feel real and honest and raw and very relatable to. I appreciate that you open yourself to us on the page. For myself, I know how hard it can be to put yourself out into the void of social media, not knowing if and how you are connecting with people, but whenever I read your posts I feel like I am talking with a friend over coffee. So thank you!

    • Daniela Uslan

      Thank you so much for your comment, Jo! It means a lot to me that you love reading my blog posts!