The Guilt Spiral: Dealing With the “Should” Mindset

personal development, self care, lifestyle, psychology, personal growth, self improvement, mindfulness, graduating university
Photo by Brandon Nelson on Unsplash

It’s been two months since I graduated university. I’ve travelled to San Francisco, planned two more trips for July and September (more on that later), sipped lattes in coffee shops with friends, floated on a lake on more than one occasion. I’ve thrown several pizza and game nights, gone on hikes, taken winding drives through country roads.

I’ve done a lot, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve done enough.

Something I’ve been struggling with now that I’m done university is “shoulds.” I have more free time, so I should be writing more, I should be posting to my blog once a week, I should be working a full time job right after graduation. I should be doing this, this, this, and this.

But why should I? Who’s saying I can’t spend my days reading, catching up with friends, and generally just existing (which, by the way, I’ve been enjoying immensely).

Me, that’s who. But why?

I think it comes down to the sort of culture we live in. If you’re not spending all your free time earning money or getting infinitely better at something – whether that be writing, dancing, or even juggling – then you’re not progressing. And if you aren’t progressing, you’re failing.

This sort of lifestyle promotes the “all work and no play” mindset – basically, work until you can’t, and no, don’t you dare relax. Every waking minute is meant to go toward bettering yourself, your work, or anything that doesn’t relate to “down time.” Down time is reserved for people who have “earned it” by running themselves ragged.

But we need breaks! Without them, stress builds up and can lead to a myriad of health problems, including headaches, back problems, and anger issues, to name a few (and trust me, there’s a lot more). And, according to Jack Torrance in “The Shining,” “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Maybe not all of you have this same mindset, but it’s something that sunk its teeth into me in childhood, and I’ve had a hard time shaking. I’ve been trying to break away from it, but like with any habit, changing years of reinforced behaviour is a challenge.

I’ve noticed whenever I’m doing something that isn’t what someone would call “productive,” I start to feel guilt, which of course leads to the “I should be doing this, or this, or this” voice starting up in my head. Then I start thinking about how bad it is that I’m not doing something productive, and then whatever I’m doing isn’t fun anymore. I just feel bad.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed it happening more and more. I can’t even seem to sit down with a book for more than ten minutes before the voice starts going “well, what you really should be doing right now is this..”

I know this is extremely unhealthy, and that’s why I want to change it. It’s important to note (both for me and for anyone reading this) that no one else is allowed to decide what is and isn’t productive, or what we should and shouldn’t be doing with our time. That, and giving ourselves breaks, whether ten minutes or an hour, is extremely important for our mental health.

Now that I’m mindful of what’s going on, I’m taking steps to combat it. Every time I notice that I feel guilt for something – whether that’s taking an extended break from writing, or going for a walk when I think I should be doing something else – I stop for a minute, acknowledge the thought, and remind myself that it’s okay (in fact, it’s beneficial) for me to be doing that at that point in time. I also remind myself that it’s not natural or healthy to be doing “productive” things every minute of every day.

And on that note: what I’m doing with my time makes me happy. I truly enjoy catching up with everyone I ignored when I was in university, and reading in the sun for hours on end or throwing pizza parties for my friends has brought me great joy over the past few weeks.

I’m not saying I’m going to push productivity away entirely – I still do write on occasion, and I’ve been painting somewhat more than before – but I’m not going to force myself to be “productive” every minute of every day. That leads to burnout, which ends up with me having to rest anyway, albeit a lot more frustrated and tired than if I’d taken the break when I should have.

And after five years of non-stop university, I think I deserve some time to kick back, relax, and take time to do whatever the hell I want.

Thanks for reading! Looking for more inspiration? You can find more writing prompts here. For more ramblings and photos of pretty things, follow my Twitter and Instagram.

4 thoughts on “The Guilt Spiral: Dealing With the “Should” Mindset

  1. AWalkWithNature

    5 years of University is reason enough to cut yourself some slack and give yourself a mental break! I have serious respect for you completing 5 years of Higher Education, I have only done one year of Uni and I already feel exhausted! Thanks for sharing xx


      1. AWalkWithNature

        I’m doing American Studies which is just a combination of history, politics, literature and art but all focused on the US. Thank you! x


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