Mental Health

The Anxiety of ‘Should’

Anxious days are strange days indeed. And today, to some extent, has been one of those. It’s not even over yet; the sun is still shining on the red-bricked ground outside our apartment block. Twenty-five degrees, dry as a bone, but still enough to make me break out in trickles of back sweat. I’ve had an ear plugged full of wax for a week and a half, which has presented its own sweet challenges.

Generally speaking, there never seems to be a valid reason for inducing should or shouldn’t decisions. ‘Reason’—can that word exist in the same breath as anxiousness? I often catch myself thinking about the language that gets used in everyday situations, how it influences the way we feel about things. This is something that crops up pretty regularly in my thoughts.


Should is a word that often carries a lot of weight. When it’s used to inform a personal decision, it infers conforming in some way to social norms. It’s as if somebody else has already laid down the path and therefore it simply should be. Who’s to question it?

Well, all of us, actually.

*Mel looks longingly at a microwave burger on the shelf at the local shop* “I shouldn’t buy that. I should have a salad or some fruit instead.”

Earlier, I chastised myself by equating something I chose as a treat (it’s not something I eat regularly) with being a bad decision. Viewing things in black and white this way feels counterproductive. I know a microwavable burger isn’t exactly the healthiest option. But, really, what’s the issue? Why did I have an issue with this? Generally, I eat a varied diet and, as far as I’m aware, don’t have any serious intolerances or allergies. I still went ahead and purchased the burger, got home and devoured it with all its fake ketchup goodness. In some ways, I feel like I tricked myself by doing that. The wavering thought was certainly there at the beginning, that I shouldn’t buy the burger. But deep down, I wanted that burger. So, the thought didn’t stop me from actually carrying out that action.

Here’s the thing. Thoughts don’t have direct control over our actions. Sure, it can sometimes feel like those niggling and incessant thoughts are completely taking over, like you’re no longer in command of your body. If you let them (and boy do I let them!), they might spiral a little and feed the cycle of procrastination, but all it ever takes is one step.

Think about it. Is one, tiny step really so difficult to achieve?

It doesn’t need to be a physical step either. If you can focus your mind on one, small thing, there’s motion involved with that. Somehow, there’s always an opportunity to keep going, no matter how much you think the world is plotting against you. Message a friend and see how they’re doing. Make a warm drink that eases your headache. Find out whether something you thought was impossible might, in fact, be doable. Engage in some research on that item you’ve been saving up for. Procure a funky sex toy and have a wank, if you like 😉

Or how about not spending any money at all and simply venturing outside for some fresh air? Read a book you’ve got but haven’t touched yet. Coming up with a new recipe using leftovers and unopened tins in the cupboard (especially those past their expiry date). The list really is endless, and that part is 100% up to you.

I believe that underneath all the bullshit we tell ourselves in the midst of anxious moments, we tend to know exactly what it is we want. But getting there? That’s most often another thing entirely.

The important point to remember is that we always have the ability to figure out:

  • what we can do (realistically) right now
  • what we can do, but which might take more time
  • what we don’t have direct influence over

There’s plenty of things we simply can’t control in our everyday lives—other people’s reactions being one of them. People can ask us to do something for them. We are under absolutely no obligation to do it. We can agree or decline, with varying consequences. Either way, when it comes from a place of inherent personal value, doesn’t the decision you make feel more fulfilling? Of course, it very much depends on what they are asking, how it fits with your own priorities, and what relationship they have with you in the first place.

Admittedly, I still often find myself wondering how to say ‘no’ to others, firmly yet politely. This all comes back to the idea of should and shouldn’t. The way I understand it is that it’s striking a balance between respecting your own personal boundaries, genuinely wanting to be useful, and respecting the other person’s goal. There have been times in the past when, although I’ve been absolutely sure that I didn’t want to do something, I’ve been overtly direct with people, and that has mostly backfired. Some of the comments I made weren’t helpful, for either of us—I felt like a mean bitch, and who knows how they felt, because I didn’t ask them. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a mean bitch or an arsehole. It just means you don’t have the capacity to help in that situation, and it doesn’t mean you can’t offer an alternative that is still useful in some way.

On the other hand, I really don’t like being wishy-washy, but delaying giving a definitive answer can make it easier to avoid impulsiveness and making split-second decisions that aren’t in line with what I truly want. I believe this whole process becomes a lot simpler when core values come into play. Being honest with yourself means that, suddenly, delaying a response often doesn’t make as much sense. Again, this is dependent on the situation. Saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ more meaningfully can be a huge relief for people dealing with anxiety. Not only is it empowering, but it shows, in some small way, that you are always in control of how you approach each and every request. I try to be accountable for that. I made this decision, and that was the outcome. Now, I’m running with it.

Sometimes, I might have decided to do a particular activity in advance, so I think to myself, I should go ahead and do it. I-I mean…it’s scheduled, it’s planned, it’s written on the fucking calendar! But where’s the spontaneity in all that? If it’s not an appointment for a specific time, why worry about time-boxing every little thing? Being organised is useful, but not to the detriment of enjoying the most freeing spell of spontaneity. Space things out. Make time. After all, time exists indefinitely until we die, right? It’s a guideline, not a rule.

There’s time for what we want, if we make it.



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