I think the word “should” is one of the most crippling words in the English language. It takes the things we know to be true in our gut and superimposes a layer of shame over the top of it. Our gut therefore becomes cloudy and imperceptible, leaving us with a general feeling of inadequacy.

Last weekend, I sat on the couch doling out Christmas ornaments to our 2-, 5- and 7-year-olds to decorate the tree. I frantically snapped pictures to try to capture the moment, knowing that these precious moments with our kids are numbered. However, I became overwhelmed with the following thought as I sat there: “I cannot stand a single one of you right now.” 

Those of you who are past this stage of life are probably thinking, “Oh, what a shame! I would give anything to go back to those moments with my own children.” But let me remind you that time erases all of the rough edges of those moments and leaves you with sparkly memories that are wistful, but shockingly inaccurate.

The kids had been arguing for two straight days about who gets to put the star on top of the tree. Our 5-year-old, Luke, had been bubbling over with so much excitement that he was like a soda bottle that had been shaken and then abruptly opened. The collective holiday excitement had raised the energy level in our already boisterous house about two notches higher than what any sane human can tolerate. They had been running in circles like deranged squirrels for days on end, and I wanted nothing more than to just check out.

But with the world swirling around me in a fervor of festive excitement, the word “should” tried to take me out at the knees. It began pummeling me with shame for all of the things I “should” and “shouldn’t” be feeling. It sounded something like: “You only have 18 Christmases with each of these boys. At the very least, you should pretend that you’re happy.”

The “shoulds” run rampant around the holidays. They tell us which events we should go to. They remind us of all of the nostalgic traditions we should do within the 25 busiest days of the year. They tell us we should swallow the grief of loved ones we’ve lost and just be jolly.

This holiday season, any time you hear or feel a “should,” treat it as a red flag. Take a moment to be curious and ask yourself: “What do I actually want/feel/desire? What would happen if I didn’t go to that work party/family gathering/social event that I’ve been dreading? What if I bought break-and-bake cookies instead of enduring the tornado of flour, dishes and sheer rage that comes with making them with all the kids?”

Sometimes the holidays get to be miserable too, just like the other 11 months of the year. Telling yourself you “should” enjoy making that gingerbread house with the kids will not make you actually enjoy it. The “shoulds” promise us that if we just act a certain way on the outside, then eventually our insides will catch up and be happy. 

SPOILER ALERT: The “shoulds” are a bunch of liars.