Before you read today’s post, drop everything and go listen to my favorite NON-health-related podcast, Nerds on History! Not only was I guest on this special Thanksgivvukah™ episode, but the hosts and I take a trip 77,000 years in the future to save a race of anthropomorphized Turkeys from a 1000-foot tall blob of tofu with a dreidel. No kidding. Go listen.
“Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
I turned 27 on Saturday.
27 is such a seemingly un-important number. It’s not a milestone in the collective unconscious:
It’s not a round number–not a shapely, easily divisible ten or a half-way-point-marking five.
I’ve been legally allowed to smoke, drink, gamble, vote, join the army, and rent a car for a while now. (Not that I’ve actually really done any of those things, except maybe drink a glass of wine once or twice a year…)
27 is a weird, spiky, “throw-away” number…and yet it’s probably my most important birthday yet.
When I turned 25, I was full of “shoulds.” Like most of my fellow Millennials (and I consider myself a member of this dot-com two-point-oh generation), I had a lot of expectations wrapped up in 25.
At 25, my parents were already married, and at 26, my mother was raising her first child (me). At 25, my parents were establishing careers, living away from their own parents, buying houses, making money, entertaining guests–you know: doing things that adults are supposed to do.
At 25, I had dropped out of my grad program. I was working in retail. I was living with my mom. I had been in one long-term relationship (and we all know how well THAT worked out for me). I was overqualified for internships and supposedly under-qualified for a big girl job. I was sinking in student debt. I was struggling with my ED under the guise of healthy eating.
At 25, I should have been a grown up, doing grown up things, and living a grown up life. I was “should”-ing all over the place, and it paralyzed me all through 26.
Now I’m here at this “shoulda been there already” number–27–yet I finally have the clarity to realize that I have a choice about living with my “shoulds.”
I think one of the reasons that recovery is so difficult for many is that “should” all over ourselves with unenforceable expectations about our lives:
I should be making X much money by now.
I should be at a certain place with my career by now.
I should have fallen in love by now.
I should be engaged/married/having babies by now.
I should be happy by now.
I should have it all figured it out by now.
And because we can’t control those shoulds, we try to control our bodies with the shoulds we think we can control:
I should “be healthy” (whatever that means).
I shouldn’t have to deal with food cravings.
I should maintain this unmaintainable body weight but also eat more.
I should gain healthy weight but not eat more or face my fear foods or develop a varied and balanced diet.
I should be a fitness model/have a six pack/PR on a 5K/lift so much weight/reach full expression of every posture in yoga.
And the more we get comfortable with “shoulding” all over ourselves, the more impossible it becomes to do things like love and accept our bodies, forgive ourselves and others for past grievances, or even just find something to be grateful for today. The task of accepting the journey in itself becomes a “should,” and we become frustrated.
It’s easier to give up, right? It’s easier to say, “I’m a struggling 20-something. I should be out of retail/twenty pounds lighter/starting a family/running a business/running a marathon/healing from whatever ails me, but I just give up.”
But notice the beginning of the sentence: “I should be…”
Giving up is contingent on the idea that there is a “should” you haven’t yet obtained.
If I had given up the second I made it past 25, I wouldn’t be here, typing away this internet-soliloquy. If I had given into the shoulds, I would instead be sitting behind my Facebook wall, glaring at every notification of a friend who has done what I already wanted to be doing by now. I think I’d also be miserable if I had lived up to my shoulds, even from a year ago.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s okay to want. It’s okay to work toward those things you want. It’s okay to have hopes and dream. But at no point should we confuse “want” with “should.” Just because there’s some cultural or personal expectation tied to your goals, such as a 25th birthday needing to be some kind of turning point after which all things in life would fall into place and make sense, there’s no reason why things can’t fall into place differently than we expected or on a different date.
Hope amplifies happiness; expectations take happiness away.
I’m so glad that this was a low-key, no-expectations birthday. I’m grateful that I didn’t get what I wanted when I wanted it. Things are falling into place now, because I’m letting them fall organically–when they’re good and ripe. (And with my history of picking bad metaphorical apples, I’m happy to relinquish the task of metaphorical apple-picking to metaphorical gravity!)
The best present I could have ever received was the permission I gave myself to let go of the shoulds. Life has a way of surprising us–and that the surprises always exceed expectation in the long term. Sure, I’m going to keep working toward the things that enrich my life, my career, my body, and my mind. But I’m going to do it without expectations.
So here’s to the spiky, odd-numbered birthdays. Here’s to the awkward moments, the detours, the frustrations, and the doubts. Here’s waiting for the right apple to fall instead of picking the wrong one too early. Here’s to the unexpected, and the unexpectedly beautiful.
Here’s to the end of “should.” Here’s to a year of permission, forgiveness, acceptance, and growth.
Here’s to 27.