My swimming coach chides me gently: 'What I hear most from you is “should” as in “I should be able to do this by now”. Be with what is.'
Privately, I think that just shows how I'm affected by lack of oxygen from struggling up and down the pool - I know all too well not to say “should” to him. I tell him I do understand that my disappointment in my performance is a form of self-criticism. Then I get a grip and swim back up the lane, more aware of myself in the water as I am now.
The message sticks with me as I go about the rest of my day and as if a flare has gone up to illuminate the battlefield, I see an army of “shoulds” crouched behind every bush. My mother should have loved me differently. My partner should have been more understanding. My friends shouldn't have died. I should have been more successful, more dedicated to my craft, a more patient parent. I should have learned to swim 40 years ago when I could have done more with it...
Each of those “shoulds” denies reality. The people in my life were who they were, the things I have done were what I could do at the time. The 'disappointment gap' between the ideal and what is really happening gnaws at my confidence and takes the gloss off the very real joys of my day to day life.
Why do it? In the false belief that we are setting worthy goals or creating motivation, many of us beat ourselves up as though we are driving stubborn donkeys, when in fact, like any animal, we are really much more motivated by encouragement and reward.
Shifting my focus from what I can't do, to what I am doing and how I can make it better is surprisingly empowering. It's the difference between 'I can't' and 'how can I...?' And like so many good things (virtue, patience), it is its own reward - I feel calmer, breathe more easily.
But wait there's more! My coach observes that my swimming has 'turned a corner'. Has the acceptance of reality had such a tangible effect? It seems so.