Letting Go of the Shoulds and The Guilt of Rest

The shoulds are all the things you think you “should” be doing and the ways you make yourself feel guilty for resting. It takes practice, but it's possible to let them go and just be.

Letting Go of the Shoulds and The Guilt of Rest
The start of a nice spring hike.
Programming note: I'm taking the next few weeks off from publishing. Your next Every Intention article will be delivered on August 30!

I arrived in Fernie after an uneventful drive. It was 6 hours of smooth sailing with a few pit stops (most importantly for donuts at The Donut Mill 🍩 in Gasoline Alley) and listening to the end of the second book of a fiction trilogy I was working through. The sun was shining and it was well above seasonal temperatures for May.

I had 4 days ahead of me and I felt tired but good. The sense of urgency to DO ALL THE THINGS was quieter than it had been the previous times I had had the privilege of these short writing retreats (quieter, but still a little in the background).

Truthfully, I had overdone it in April and was reaping the consequences of saying yes to too many things, despite knowing better! I was exhausted and didn’t have much left in the tank.

The irony of my too many April commitments was that they all primarily centred around teaching time management and burnout prevention😅. While I wasn’t in burnout, I knew that I was heading down that path and needed to hit the brakes before I crashed.

A few days in the mountains was just what I needed!

After settling into the house, I sat on the patio with a glass of white wine, a mountain view, and enjoyed the warmth on my skin after so many months of bitter cold. I could immediately feel myself unwinding.

A different approach

The weeks leading up to the trip had been so full that I hadn’t spent as much time planning as I usually did. In fact, I hadn’t really planned anything, which was so unlike me! I wanted to catch up on my writing but otherwise, the week ahead was open.

My first full day I woke up early and was writing by 7:00 am. On previous trips, I had set myself a rigorous morning schedule of yoga first thing and meditation, with the intention of setting my brain and body up for a good day of writing/thinking. It worked well for me before, but on this trip, I found I didn’t have it in me. I just sat at the table and started, letting go of the “shoulds” and taking it easy on myself.

It turned out that “letting go of the shoulds” ended up being the theme of the trip.

Giving myself permission to unwind and enjoy some quiet.

The shoulds and the guilt of rest

The shoulds are the endless loop of all the things you “should” be doing.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • “I should get back to work” - You feel you need to earn downtime. Rest is only a reward for working hard.
  • “I should do more” - You have to be exhausted for rest to be “allowed” or “ok”.
  • “I should be doing something productive” - If you aren’t doing/being productive, you feel like you are wasting time.
  • “I should push through” - Instead of listening to your body, you keep going.
  • “I should say yes” - …when you want to say no. Instead of keeping a boundary, you people-please.

The shoulds are often things you don’t want to do but feel pressured to do. They are often motivated by fear-based decisions around things like:

The shoulds are not necessarily all bad. Sometimes they are completely reasonable to pull you out of procrastination or reconnect you to priorities when you are in a rut. But often the shoulds show up as ways to make you feel bad about simply enjoying your life.

The shoulds are all the ways you make yourself feel guilty for resting.

Rest for the sake of rest

I have written about self-care, self-maintenance, and rest many times, often framing it as a competitive advantage in life. The gist: You will tackle all the things life throws at you better if your mind and body feel good. But framing rest only in service of future productivity, shoulding yourself non-stop, misses the other side of the coin.

The other side of the coin is simply rest for the sake of rest, with no other agenda but to feel good. It’s resting without guilt and enjoying it. It’s doing the things that fill you up because you like them, and not worrying that you should be doing something more “productive”.

It’s letting go of the shoulds.

Letting go of the shoulds and the old stories we tell ourselves

Not having the feeling that you are not doing the right thing. Letting go of guilt, anxiety, and fear. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

I discovered on my trip that, while those are easy to say, letting go of the shoulds is harder to do. As is the case with all the ways to live an intentional life, it takes effort.

Over the course of my trip, I thought many (many, many) times about the things I should be doing. I experienced the guilt, anxiety, and fear. But each time I started shoulding myself I took a moment to stop and ask:

Why? Why should you…?


Is your answer the truth or an old story you have been telling yourself for a long time?

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The old stories you tell yourself

In this case, my stories were of needing to do more, be more, and be perfect. These are stories I carry with me all the time but am working on changing.

The entire trip was me giving myself permission over and over and over to just be. To work, but not have to keep doing all the time. To let go of the guilt of rest and instead be grateful I had the wonderful opportunity to even be in Fernie in the first place. To enjoy my time there and not worry about what came next.

It was rewriting my story to just do what I felt like.

I had to make the intentional decision over and over to be ok with the choices I was making to rest and fill my bucket.

  • “I should take advantage of the mountains while I’m here” - I did, but that didn’t mean I had to go for hikes every day. I went for one, relatively easy, hike. I went for a run and a few walks, and otherwise enjoyed the mountains while sitting on a patio.
  • “I should spend more time writing” - I wrote every morning for a few hours but only until my brain felt tired.
  • “I should catch up on my backlog of newsletters” - I didn’t, and that’s ok. They are all still there for another time.
  • “I should eat only the healthy food I brought and not eat any junk food” - I ate what I brought AND enjoyed a little junk food. Nothing wrong with a little chocolate and chips.
  • “I should read/listen to work-related things instead of reading fiction and watching NBA playoffs” - I didn’t. I enjoyed several fiction books in different forms and watched NBA games simply because I wanted to.

I let go of my shoulds and, wouldn’t ya know it, I came home from my trip feeling rested and replenished.

This writing retreat was an interesting experience because it was very different from the previous trips I had taken, and went against my usual rigorous structure. It forced me to be constantly reflective and thoughtful about how I was speaking to myself and the stories I was telling. While structure has its place and is definitely where I am most comfortable, I am discovering as I get older that there is an important place for spontaneity and open space.

Letting go of the shoulds and rewriting (or at least editing) those old stories is hard. It takes considerable mental effort to pause and reflect on our normal thought patterns but it’s possible and something that, as I am learning, gets a bit easier with practice.

My challenge to you is, next time you find yourself shoulding and feeling the guilt of rest, ask yourself if the story you are telling yourself about WHY you should is true.

What part of that story can you let go of to give yourself permission to rest and enjoy?

Letting go of the shoulds and re-writing your stories is no easy feat. If you need help working on it, get in touch.