I shoulda known: Nobody’s perfect

Saturday, July 28, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:08 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hmmm. Looks like I can buy a good whip — a genuine cat-o’-nine-tails — for about $80 online. That could do the trick.

That is if I want to do it right.

I’ve been beating myself up pretty good lately for not getting everything done. And what I have done hasn’t been done as well as I’d like it to be.

I’ve been telling myself I should have done more. I should have done this project. I should have thought to do that task. I shouldn’t have taken time off but graded those papers instead.

In short, I’ve been “shoulding” all over myself, as the therapists say. Which I know I shouldn’t do. (There I go again.)

So I dug out Loretta LaRoche’s book “Relax — You May Only Have a Few Minutes Left.” Her specials on PBS are hilarious and helpful. And I thought she might have some words of wisdom for me. She did.

When you “should” on yourself, she wrote, “to the outside world this makes you appear very conscientious, but it also reminds you that you are not quite right just as you are. It’s a very subtle but extremely effective way to ensure your continuing low self-esteem, which is probably the number-one misery maker in the universe.”

And “if you ‘should’ on yourself a lot, you probably ‘should’ on others as well. As always, misery loves company. You move from discussing with friends, family, and significant others the thing you should have done differently in your life to the things they should have done differently.” Makes for lovely companionship, don’t you think?

LaRoche’s advice:

“1. Whenever you get caught up in thinking about what you should have done, stop and think about what a waste of energy that is. You can’t go back and do it, because that period of time has passed. As long as you’re still breathing, there’s a possibility that you can do it now. However, if you have no intention to follow through, give it up and move on.”

“2. Buy yourself a whip and keep it handy. Every time you start to drown yourself or others in ‘shoulds,’ grab the whip and give yourself a good beating. You’re already self-flagellating, so why not do it as authentically as possible?”

“3. Keep a ‘should’ journal. You’ll probably be shocked to discover how many times a day ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ come out of your mouth.”

“4. There are certain chores in life that have to be done. Do them to the best of your ability and then forget about them.”

“5. Don’t allow ‘shoulding’ to go on at home or at work.”

Pretty good advice out of a book loaded with such advice.

I dug out another book I had read before: Richard Carlson’s “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and It’s All Small Stuff.”

The brief messages can serve as little reality checks when you’re replaying the day and wondering why you got so caught up in an argument today or why you cared so much that a decision played out that way. It doesn’t hurt to remind yourself to:

n “Make peace with imperfection.”

n “Let others be ‘right’ most of the time.”

n “Be aware of the snowball effect of your thinking.”

n “Remind yourself that when you die, your ‘in basket’ won’t be empty.”

You can dismiss this as nothing more than bumper sticker philosophy, but if you truly get the message behind each slogan, you’ve learned a valuable lesson for the day.

The lessons have had a little more meaning to me in the last few weeks when a dear friend suddenly became ill. One minute life is work and play and chores and plans, and the next it’s numbness in the arm and blood clots on the brain. Suddenly life’s priorities are different.

Well, does it have to take a brush with death to help us sort out our priorities? To help us figure out the big stuff from the small stuff? To stop us from “shoulding” all over ourselves?

I hope not. But just in case, you can still shop for that whip.

Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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