Stuck in the Shoulds

So typically, I like to believe that I’m on the right path – that I sort of have my shit together and kind of know what I’m doing. Usually when I’m not busy talking myself off of the ledge or having a secret panic attack about whether or not I left the oven on, I like to think that I’m pretty awesome and that I really do have this life thing figured out.

Then some days, I feel like a complete and total loser.

The Shoulds are ubiquitous in our twenties. There’s always someone doing something better or cooler that we think we should be doing, when in actuality, it’s just different. We’re all familiar with the little voice in the back of our head that’s perpetually judging us. The one that says, “you’re not good enough, you aren’t as fast as that lean, sinewy goddess running next to you on the treadmill, or that person you’re infatuated with but, ‘are totally playing it cool’ didn’t text you back because they decided they don’t like you and you’re destined to die alone with only your sixteen depressing cats to comfort you.” It’s the voice of all of our nagging doubts and insecurities, our overwhelming fears, and our unavoidable desire to be accepted.

The problem with this voice is that it’s a liar.

Recently, I was out with a guy and he introduced me to his group of friends. Prior to this, I was briefly acquainted with them and they had always been a little awkward and standoffish, and I shared my apprehension with this guy. He knowingly prepped me, reassuring me that, ‘they can be a little exclusive, but just be yourself.’ Following his advice, I proceeded to talk about uncensored bowel movements, my ignorance of a lot of the Olympians, (probably blasphemous because they work with the athletes) and the lack of propriety creepy hand gestures, such as my infamous gun fingers, have in new acquaintances. Everything was actually going really well, despite my initial anxiety about meeting them. Then, to my dismay, one of his friends said to me, ‘Wow, I’ve never actually hung out with a waitress before.”


I immediately responded jokingly by making a comparison of my being his waitress, to seeing one of his teachers in the supermarket. I recovered quickly and tried not to let his comment ruin my night…but standing there, surrounded by guys who all had their master’s, worked with Olympians, and were not just in their careers, but their dream jobs, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. A huge part of me screamed inside to list off my credentials, to give a verbal resume of all of my experiences that made me qualified to be engaging in conversation with them, and more specifically, to be spending time with his friend. I was only a waitress to him. In a matter of minutes, I went from being the accomplished, experienced woman that I typically consider myself to be, to this one-dimensional plebeian, whose only identity marker was her profession. Then, out came my inner voice, the liar, that let me believe that he was right in labeling me. Over the next few days I really thought about his words and listed off several profanities that I thought described him best. Then, I had a huge realization.

This wasn’t about him.

His comment, made out of possible insecurity, ignorance of the delicacies of social interaction, or harmless banter, was a trigger for all of the bottled up feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that I had felt about my decision to live unconventionally. He merely shined a light on my own discomfort in my choice not to pursue a master’s degree despite my potential, and the questions about what I should be doing. Should I be in grad school to become an editor? Should I have a career or at least be pursuing one? Should I have said something to him? Should I be traveling? Should I have eaten that order of hot wings at 2 am?

Once I had finished berating myself for not being in school, I considered how I would feel if I was. Would I be happy in continuing my education, knowing full well that I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to study? Would I be okay with compromising what my heart truly desires – to travel and see the world – for the security of a two year program, followed by debt and the inevitable financial binding of my freedom to finding a career?

The answer is overwhelmingly, no. 

I don’t want his life, even with the master’s degree, the career, and the status of working with Olympians. I have actively chosen to do something else, to follow my dream and to travel abroad. I realized that I was putting so much of my worth on whether or not I was doing what everyone else was. In hindsight, I would actually like to thank this person for bringing to my awareness that I wasn’t fully comfortable in what I was doing – waitressing – in order to bring my dream to fruition. I had been experiencing a bad case of the Shoulds, and his comment allowed me to reflect on what that meant. I could choose to let his words affect my self-worth, getting stuck in a loop of self-doubt and criticism, or I could choose to feel empowered, acknowledging to myself that I’m doing something that’s going to allow me to accomplish my dreams.

The only thing we all should be doing, is trying to stay true to ourselves despite the opinions of others.

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