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What I Really Know About Freedom: Shed the ‘Shoulds’

At 66, I’ve finally found the freedom to be myself. Five years ago I started shedding the “shoulds” in my life and began to liberate myself from a lifetime of doing what was expected. It all started with dance.

The flier said you didn’t need a partner to take swing lessons, so I took a risk and tiptoed into a world I’d abandoned after college. At first it was hard. What if I looked foolish? Walking into the roomful of strangers took me back to those eighth-grade wallflower days. But after three classes, I stepped on fewer toes and panted less. I endured. A year later, the lessons had smoothed my moves. Better still, taking that risk changed my life.

I learned that the rules I’d been living by (e.g., can’t dance if your husband doesn’t; always look your best in public) were all in my head. And when I replaced the “shoulds” with “coulds,” possibilities sprang up everywhere. My brain was no longer cramped by a code, and the free space created a vacuum that sucked in new opportunities to grow.

Now, I seldom look back wishing I could repeat the past. Sure, I yearn for the peachy-smooth skin I used to have, but no longer feel compelled to look my prettiest at all times. I leave the house without mascara, pull a hat over bad hair and never buy pointy torture shoes. I say what’s on my mind more often, apologize before regrets fester and stop ruminating over “What did she really mean by that?” I’m no longer polite to the nth degree and have stopped taking things so personally.

I never knew how heavy my should-bag had grown until I threw it away. Luckily, my shoulders bounced back when my feet started hopping.

I even ask strangers to dance.

The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Carol Wiseman is a reader from Whidbey Island, Wash.

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