A Bad Case of the Shoulds

I played the trombone in high school.

I enjoyed playing the trombone. I enjoyed playing in the pep band at football games. I enjoyed poking saxophone players with the slide. I enjoyed being the only brass instrument without keys. I enjoyed the friends I made in band.

When high school ended so did my days of playing the trombone. There just aren’t a lot of opportunities for a trombonist to play outside of a school setting. Symphonies or brass ensembles or ska bands. That’s about it. (And truthfully I was never really good enough for symphonies or brass ensembles or even ska bands.)

And yet, I held onto my trombone for a little over a decade. I probably moved it across the country as many times as I played it. I held onto the trombone but I held onto something much more insidious: the should.

For those ten years whenever I saw my trombone sitting in the closet I would say to myself, “I should play my trombone.”

A war of thoughts followed:
“After all, my parents bought it for me and it wasn’t cheap. I owe it to them to play my trombone.”
“But it’s so darn loud.”
“I could go outside.”
“And annoy the neighbors? Besides, my chops aren’t up for playing much. And I haven’t got music to play. And I’m not sure I can remember which notes belong to which positions on the slide anymore.”
You already know which side won the vast majority of those fights.

Finally, after ten years of the shoulds (and the accompanying pangs of guilt), I’d had enough. I took my trombone out of the basement and donated it to the band teacher of the elementary school where I was working.

In all honesty, during my decade long bout of the shoulds I didn’t really recognize the emotional baggage I was carrying along with that trombone. I had not only let go of a thing. I had let go of an expectation. And boy did it feel good.

I began to recognize other things in my life that were giving me the shoulds:

  • Notes, articles, and other papers from college. (“I should go back and re-read those. That’s a great source of knowledge.”)
  • Rock climbing shoes and harness. (“I should find someone to go rock climbing with. It’d be a lot of fun.”)
  • Books. (“I should go back and re-read that book. I really enjoyed it.” OR “I should read that book. I’m kind of interested in the topic.”)
  • Clothes. (“I should wear that shirt more often. It’s not really my style but it’s a nice shirt and I paid good money for it.”)

In most cases the shoulds masquerade as motivational thoughts. On the surface my shoulds were trying to make me a more knowledgeable, musical, fit human being. But beneath that veneer of positivity was just a lot of guilt. The reality is that those objects were artifacts of a life I had lived, not tools of the intentional life I wanted to live.

So how do you cure a bad case of the shoulds? For me it was asking a simple question whenever I looked at something that had a should attached: Where does this belong?

The answer was almost always: not in my life. My should carriers found new homes in Craigslist, Half-Price Books, Goodwill, the local library, and the recycling bin. The guilt of not using those objects was replaced by relief that someone else would now use it and joy at the mental and physical space I’d created in my life. Now when the shoulds come up it’s in the form of, “I really should find a new home for that.”

See also:
Declutter Your Fantasy Self | Miss Minimalist
Letting Go of Sentimental Items | The Minimalists

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