My family has this end-of-year tradition of sending out a letter to friends who we’ve been connected to for many years. My mum writes about how the year had been for each of our family members, sometimes quite detailed. And then she prints a copy and writes a personal note for every recipient. And while this sounds like a nice tradition (and I know for a fact that everyone receiving the letter really appreciates it and usually replies), the act of knowing that this letter is coming fills me with anxiety – every year. What is she going to write this year? How did she make sense of what I did this year? What might other people think about the way I live my life? What if she misrepresents something and I get embarrassed about how I spent my year?
As those questions race through my mind I begin to wonder why I care. What is it with this family tradition that makes me so anxious every year?
My years are usually filled with a lot of activities. My husband and I sometimes joke about the fact that we tend to do so many things each year that it’s hard to remember them all. This year again was packed with new adventures, from starting a business to buying a property. And that doesn’t even factor in the fact that COVID affected our lives, too.
And yet, I feel like I don’t live up to my own standards. Everything should already be in order: the house should be in perfect shape (especially for the holidays), my business should be thriving and I should already have my book published, be a profitable entrepreneur AND be internationally recognised for my achievements. Is that the measure I hold up for myself?
As a coach, I usually preach patience, mindfulness, and acceptance. I walk my clients through exercises of identifying their wins, of setting goals, of figuring out their next steps, of accepting ‘what is’. I, too, have a group of people who reminds me every week that I’m enough and that I am where I need to be today. And yet, I remain impatient. I dread the end-of-year letter which should be filled with my achievements and the conclusion that I finally did it all.
All this while I know that there will never be a year when that letter comes. Why not? Because there will always be things I didn’t accomplish, areas of my life that were left untouched or even unresolved throughout the year. There will always be something I miss. And there will also be more ‘should’s than ‘is’s.
Don’t should yourself
On one of my very first coaching calls, a mentor of mine told me to stop ‘should-ing’ myself. At the time he said that I didn’t really understand yet. Yes, it made sense on a logical level but I kept thinking that ‘should’s are important because they help me to stay on track. ‘I should be exercising every day’ (because it’s good for me), ‘I shouldn’t be watching so many youtube clips’ (because they distract me), ‘I should focus my energy on writing and publishing’ (because otherwise, people won’t know what I have to say). I always thought that those words were the once to keep me grounded.
And yet, as I look back on 2020, ‘should’ is the essence of my anxiety. ‘I should have done this…’ or ‘I shouldn’t have done that…’. I should be somewhere else than I currently am. However, I failed my own expectations and aspirations. I finish the year with regrets for what has been.
This year, as I also finish a year of personal development and growth, I try to brush off all the ‘should’s in my life. I look back on 2020 and all the things I accomplished. I don’t ‘should’ myself but rather cheer myself for everything I have done this year. While there is still a fair amount of ‘should have’ in my mind, I don’t verbalise it. I let it sit there and maybe I come back to it in 2021. I don’t want to ‘should’ all over 2020 as it is drawing to a close.
My mum’s letter came earlier than expected this year. It was a reflection of the year as any other. I got about two paragraphs and it was mostly superficial. But there was a handwritten note that stunned me: “I hope I got your story right this year” my mum wrote. Yes, she did. But do I?
Do I get my story of 2020 right?