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Calming the Should Storm
We have an endless stream of thoughts running through our minds. Some we pay attention to while others float through and disburse like clouds across the sky. Recently I noticed some long-standing habitual thoughts I tend to latch on to and was pleased that I could let them slide.
I have a particular affinity for shoulding, i.e., listing all the actions I need to take in order to live up to my personal expectations. In the moment, these thoughts look like logical planning and personal growth. However, they can quickly spiral into a storm of ridiculous expectations and I end up shoulding myself.
Here’s a recent example. I love to walk my dogs on the conservation land near my house. It’s good exercise for all of us. These days, however, it’s pretty crowded out there, and if I’m honest, my dogs aren’t well trained to come when I call. So I stopped the walks while I double down on my dog training.
Sounds very logical, but here’s what happens in my head. I get the thought that I should be taking them out. I try to make a plan that works around the crowds. I think – I could get up at the crack of dawn and rush out there. Then I think – yeah, but I bet other people are doing the same thing. I even go so far as to drive to the trailhead without the dogs at random times. Always a couple of cars there these days. Then I start feeling guilty and sorry for my dogs. Mind you, these dogs have ¼ acre fenced-in yard to run in, complete with a deck and a screened porch with a ceiling fan. Notice the logical thinking fading fast.
When I’m caught up in this loop of urgent thinking, I lose my mental clarity and common sense. My mood plummets. Life looks difficult, and a pleasurable part of my life suddenly becomes a chore. I don’t see any options.
Thankfully, I eventually remember how my mind works and I realize I don’t have to pay attention to every thought that crosses my mind. This settles me down. Even though nothing changed, my mood lifts and life looks reasonable again. I suddenly have an insight: I could take the dogs out separately and work on their training one-on-one. And since we’d be training, it would actually be helpful to stumble upon other people and dogs while we’re walking.
The same type of spiraling thinking happens in my work. On a recent Zoom coaching call, I shared with a client that I’m not adhering to the absolute letter of the “Stay At Home” law regarding the coronavirus. When the call was over, I remembered that this client considers it his patriotic duty to obey the distancing rules. Uh-Oh! Within a few minutes, I felt sure I’d be getting an email saying he didn’t want to work with me anymore. Then I realized what I was doing and pulled up out of the should-storm.
These may seem like trivial examples, but they are reminders of the elegant design of the human mind. There is a built-in feedback loop of feeling that signals what’s up with our thinking. When we remember to pay attention and heed the warning, we clear the way for insights to flow and give us fresh thinking in the moment.
The mind works pretty well on its own. No should-ing needed. What a relief.