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An imperfect life guide for women

Ethical Dilemmas: Quieting Down the “Shoulds” and “Oughts”

Hey Jude,

Lately I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed. There is so much going on in life, and in the world, and I don’t know how to get everything done. I am busy all the time and I feel like everything is non-stop. I know that women are supposed to want and “have it all,” but sometimes I feel as though I can’t do all this. My therapist and doctor both said I should try anti-depressants, but my family disagrees. They are suspicious of anti-depressants and think it’s better to cope without them. What do you think?

[female, 24]

Oy…I hear you and I feel your pain. Let’s break this down a bit so that it’s more manageable. There are two issues here: 1) being overwhelmed and trying to “have it all,” and 2) whether or not to take medication for depression. Let’s start with the first one.

Yes, the world DOES seem like an awful place. Particularly right now, when I wake up to read that Trump has fired the FBI Director, and the US is essentially 1984, and the polar caps are melting, and people of colour are being killed indiscriminately with zero consequences to the murderous police officers, and husbands are abusing their wives, and animals are being tortured every minute of every day. It’s all too much to take, and that’s why I said, “I hear you”—because I think about this stuff all the time and if I think about it too long, I’ll crawl into bed, start sobbing, and never get up.

So, it’s important to remember this (which I have written on a Post-It note beside my desk): “Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.” Accept that you will never be able to solve or remedy all of the world’s problems. You can only control your own life and your small sphere of influence—you can’t control racist, rogue police officers in the States, or entire industries that don’t give two shits about climate change, or evil people who torture their families.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be outraged by these things, but if you let them overwhelm you, you will become completely ineffective. So DO become outraged, but not to the point of paralysis. DO something with your rage: spend your time or your money or your skills to support causes that matter to you. No effort is too minimal. If there are lots of things you care about, start by picking ONE that you find most outrageous, and begin there. Bite off these problems one at a time, or else you’ll choke for sure.

Putting your rage into action will fight off the paralysis, and you will add some good into the world. I tend to get most overwhelmed when I feel that change is NOT possible–that the world will keep on going like it is, without any hope or light. And I have to remind myself that change really is happening all the time—I just need to look for it.

Re: “having it all.” I get frustrated sometimes when I read articles about how women are “supposed” to a) want it all and b) get it all. Since the moment we are born, women are told how we “ought” to live, what we “ought” to want, how we “ought” to exist.

Every decade comes with a new carefully prescribed ideal for women to strive for—a specific definition of what “it all” is that we should want/need/seek. In the fifties we were told to be housewives and mums. Now we are being told we have to be EVERYTHING, ALL THE TIME. WITHOUT END. But the patriarchal, troubled, ever-changing world will ENSURE that we never reach that goal. It’s a game you can’t win, but you are constantly told you have to play.

We need to be smarter and think about WHO or WHAT is coming up with this ideal, and WHO or WHAT is telling us we ought to fit that ideal. Who is in the background, coming up with this message? I’m a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but I think these ideals are creations of patriarchal culture. They are oppressive mechanisms designed to keep women distracted, overwhelmed, and ineffective.

It’s the same with changing definitions of beauty: the beauty ideal is constantly shifting, and women are told to a) VALUE that ideal and b) ACHIEVE that (unachievable) ideal. When I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, my life changed. (Please read it immediately if you can—it will blow your mind.) Wolf makes the brilliant argument that patriarchy ENSURES that you spend your entire life (i.e., your energy, your money, your time, your resources, your emotions) trying to win a race that—unbeknownst to you—CANNOT BE WON. You’ll sacrifice everything in the process, and you will become disempowered. And while you’re busy running that useless, contrived race, old white men sit on the sidelines, smirking and designing the next arbitrary course.

So what is the answer? The answer is to design your own race. Think about the finish line, think about the course, think about your fellow runners. Challenge the ever-changing and useless definition of “it all” that you are being fed, and ask these questions: What do YOU want out of your life? What matters to YOU? What does success look like to YOU?

Philosophers have waxed poetic for millennia over what the “Good Life” entails—is it living virtuously? or achieving Nirvana? or refraining from sin? Be your own philosopher, and be as specific as possible with your vision. But this is important: resist the urge to keep adding more and more elements to this vision. Keep it as simple as you can. KonMari yourself so that you’re only focusing on what “sparks joy” for you, and try to quiet down those voices that exist in all women’s heads—the “shoulds” and the “oughts.”

It sounds morbid, but I often think about the following scenario: when I’m on my deathbed looking back on my life, what are the things that I will want to have accomplished/experienced, that let me know my life was worthwhile? I need to know that my life mattered, that I made some small difference in the world, so I try to figure out what specific things would signify (to ME) that my life mattered. This isn’t about other people’s expectations for you or of you. It’s about defining and clarifying things for your own sake.

And I’ll say something similar with regards to anti-depressants: Your body is yours alone, and what you do with your body is a decision that is also yours alone. If you think that medication may help you in your daily life, then try it for a while and see how it feels. I can understand wanting to bounce the idea off family members, but please don’t let their opinions have too much influence over your decision.

Many people hold views of mental health issues that range from ignorant to downright harmful, and I urge you to do your own research and be your own investigator. I come from a family that is very, very suspicious of medication for mental health issues. They are content to drink alcohol to “relax,” take tons of over-the-counter medication for various ailments (real and imagined), and take prescribed medication for pretty much anything OTHER than mental health problems. When it comes to suicidal depression or debilitating anxiety, however, they think exercise and fresh air will suffice. (Yes, exercise is great for mental health—but sometimes that alone isn’t enough.)

There is definitely the (unspoken) sense in my family that mental health problems are a sign of weakness and self-indulgence. And as someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety for many years, I eventually had to establish a firm boundary between myself and my family: my choice to take medication was absolutely none of their business, and it is something that I no longer discuss with them because I know that they aren’t able to see beyond their own assumptions and limitations around mental health.

Please hang in there. I’m glad you have a therapist to support you. As flippant as it sounds, it seems like you might need to get back to basics and simplify your life. It’s not an easy process, but it is profoundly worthwhile. There is so much NOISE in the world—some is worth listening to, but much is not. It’s time to put a little bubble around yourself and decide very carefully what you’re going to let in. It’s also time to come up with a very specific, manageable, practical, and necessarily limited way that you want to tackle one of the evils you see around you. As my grandpa used to say, “Yard by Yard, Life is Hard. Inch by inch, Life’s a Cinch.”

Do you have an ethical dilemma you need help with? Send your question to