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Letting Go of Guilt About What You “Should” Be Doing

“Beware the bareness of a busy life.” ~Socrates

It was December 26th. The day after Christmas. Ten days after my daughter’s first birthday. I was sitting on the floor coiling Christmas lights when I began to try to stand up. Almost immediately, I sunk back down to the floor.

I was tired. I was physically tired. I was emotionally tired. Even my soul felt tired.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did I get here? Sitting on the family room floor after two beautiful family events—my daughter’s birthday and Christmas—and my bones, heart, and soul ached so much that I considered whether I would be able to stand up again.

Six weeks after the birth of my daughter, I chose to get back on a plane and continue building my consulting business. I spent the entire first year of her life haunted by my ego as I frantically tried to build my business, serve clients, and prove that I was needed and valuable.

The image of a successful woman that I’ve always carried with me is that of a woman who is smart, driven, professionally accomplished. She is also a Mary Poppins mom, a loving wife, and a leader in the community. And she is someone who makes it all look effortless with her calm, impeccable style.

That superwoman was the gold standard I’d spent years, and especially the last year, trying to live up to.

But now, on December 26th, I’d awakened only to realize that as much as I was chasing the dream of the superwoman, I wasn’t living my life.

I came crashing headfirst into my so called life.

The words of Socrates, beware the bareness of a busy life, were suddenly eerily real.

I knew it was time for me to make some significant changes in my life.

As I reflected back on that year, I realized that I had been driven by guilt and its close cousin, the “shoulds.” Together, they ignited a fire in me that drove me, ultimately filling my hours and days with busyness.

Guilt would rear its ugly head with questions like, “Am I working too much and not spending enough time with my family?” Or “Am I undermining my health and my family’s health because a significant majority of the food consumed in the household comes from a takeout box?” Perhaps, “Am I letting down my client because I did not immediately reply to their email?”

All I needed to do was to spend a few minutes pondering questions like these, and I was deep in the black hole of guilt—insecure, confused, miserable, tired.

But, when I paused on December 26th, I realized that it was my fears and anxieties that were driving me. My guilt was the manifestation of both. So, I decided it was time to face my fears by asking myself, “What is the worst thing that could happen? Is it real? Is it true?”

As I looked at my fears—really looked at them—I realized that I had created elaborate, worst case scenarios that had no actual grounding in reality. They were neither real nor true.

I did not know a business owner who had lost a client because they did not immediately respond to an email. And, upon reflection, if I did lose a client because of this, they probably weren’t an ideal client for me.

Once I realized that fear and anxiety had been driving my guilt, it was time for me to take an honest look at its close cousin, the “shoulds.” The “should” are those voices in your head—and you know the ones—saying “You should be doing this,” “You should like that,” “You should spend time on this,” “You should stop doing that,” and so on and so forth—endlessly.

There were numerous unspoken “shoulds” that had contributed to my busy, barren, exhausted life.

The problem with the “shoulds” is that they can easily become a runaway train, completely derailing your ability to get clear and focused on what you need and desire.

I realized that I needed to start saying “no.” Saying “no” to the voices inside my head, and maybe externally as well, and doing it in a new way—a way that I developed and like to call the “P.O.W.E.R. No.”

Here’s how I use it:

  • Priorities: When that voice in your head tells you that should complete this task, lead another project, attend another meeting, or make cupcakes from scratch, evaluate the priority of that message. How does this “should” align to your priorities, the company’s strategic priorities, and/or your family’s priorities?
  • Opportunities: Explore the opportunities. What opportunities does this “should” create for you? Is there something that does actually need additional attention in your life? This “should” could be shining a light on something that you need to address.
  • Who: Who or what triggered this “should”? Was it an old script from childhood? Was it an ad in a magazine? Was it your colleague?
  • Expectations: Whose expectations are these really? Your manager? Your mother? Your spouse? Your child? Society’s?
  • Real: Get real.What is this “should” really about? Are there real priorities that are driving this “should”? Or are you taking on societal expectations that are not in alignment with your priorities?

The P.O.W.E.R. No enables me to think carefully and critically about all of the “shoulds” so that I can consciously and thoughtfully respond. It has helped me get back in the driver’s seat of my life—conscious, intentional, and awake.

I am so grateful that I crashed headfirst into my life on December 26th. In that moment of crisis and confusion, I was able to see clearly what drove me to such a barren, lifeless existence—and to know that I was capable of fixing it to restore personal and professional order for myself.

Today, I have created a life that keeps me connected to my husband and daughter, laughing, running in the mornings, building my dream business, working simply and living fully.

With that said though, I keep Socrates’ quote posted inside my desk drawer. It serves as a as a simple reminder of not only what’s at stake, but also, and more importantly, how far I’ve come to build a life I love.

About Carson Tate

Carson Tateis a dynamic teacher, speaker, coach and consultant known for personal transformation and simple, powerful actionable content.Her first book, Work Simply: Embracing Your Personal Productivity Style, will be released January 2, 2015 by Penguin. For additional tools and resources please visit www.carsontate.com.

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  • Thanks Carson for a great post. It is so very funny but we all have been there. We have all had our December 26th and had to face the realization that the guilt and should will never leave us alone but we can learn how to control them.
    Just before I read your post I was struggling with the guilt and should of something that happen many years ago. Even though I had no idea how my life would have turned out but because of where I am presently my mind tried to convinced me of how wonderful it would have been if I had made better choices. They will never go away.
    Thanks again for this great post and good luck on your first book. I will surely be looking out for it.

  • ccrgirl

    Carson, thanks! I needed this so much.

  • Anna Puchalski

    Hi Carson! Great article and simplified way of thinking of what tasks to take on what to leave or postpone. For the past couple of years I became an anal perfectionist, granted I got a lot done and my house was always clean but I realized I was not enjoying what I loved to do and was never on time for the things that mattered. Now I realized that I can relax, especially when I am on my own time. Wishing you continued successes in your life, hope you have more time and energy to enjoy it all!

  • Peg Hubbard

    Yep, I’m right there with you, Carson! The “shoulds” ruled my life for decades, until I had my own ‘December 26th’ moment, and began to be more mindful about the choices I made. Today I am much more at peace, and grateful that each ‘should’ gives me an opportunity to make a choice based on what is truly best for me. Best of luck with the new book! I’ll be watching for it!

  • Estefany Pinzon

    Thanks for this beautiful article, trully we cannot never make it without help, in my case I count with my mom, so I can dedicate to work and school and she helps me with home issues. Whoever who sold that idea of wonderwoman wasn’t a women!!!!

  • Sandy Massone

    It’s so interesting that it is our moments of crisis that push us to transform our lives. I used to believe I could simply float through but I see so many people who have grown immensely, and usually for the better, through painful experiences. Thanks Carson!

  • Carson,
    Thanks for telling us your story. I beleive that the person that is hardest to say no to is ourselves.

    Part of the resaon for that is the baggage that clogs up our thinking. Dumb ideas about how we should live our lives carelessly picked up or drummed into us.

    But we have a choice and encouragement is what we need. Your advice to deal with irrational fears and make some priority calls is a great place to start being who we really are.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    This was quite insightful & much NEEDED; thank you for sharing your story! Glad to hear that you were able to find the CLARITY & find the balance with your happiness — health, family & career goals…:)

  • Karolina

    Thank you for the article.