Should. It’s a small word, but it has a pretty big impact on the way we think about ourselves and others. It’s a word I don’t contemplate often, but frequently use — and I don’t think I’m alone in this. But, after reading Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (part memoir, part cultural exploration of the unmarried woman that I found very eye-opening), I’ve spend a lot of time thinking about the word “should” — both in the context of my relationship status and in a more general sense. I’ve done a little digging into what “should” means for me (and for most of us), and I’ve been pretty surprised by how influential the concept of “should” really is.
“Should” is a commonly used part of most of our lexicons, but it can become so pervasive that we don’t even think about how (or how often) we’re using it. How many times have you thought to yourself: I should be… or S/he should… You’ve probably had one of those thoughts already today. I certainly have! As someone who tends to buck anything I’m “supposed” to do (a result of falling into this Rebel category, I think), I find myself quite often thinking I should be doing something other than what I am doing. (For example: I should be writing right now. I should be more settled. I should be wearing real clothes and not sweatpants…) If you’re like me, you probably experience quite a few “should” thoughts yourself.
At first glance, “should” feels like it might be a positive, motivating word. It can guide us to do what’s best for us… right? Well, the more I think about, the more it seems to me that “should” is a pretty negative word. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of being positively present. It’s focused on what’s lacking (not very positive) and it’s focused on something other than what’s happening (not very present). Here are some of the reasons you might want to kick “should” out of your vocabulary…
SHOULD ISN’T A GREAT MOTIVATOR.
It might sound like “should” would encourage you to focus on what needs to be done, guiding you toward your goals, but when most people think the word “should,” there’s a knee-jerk reaction to rebel against it, or at least feel resentful of it (if you’re not the rebelling type). Rather than empowering you to do something else, should actually reinforces what you’re not doing. When you think something like I should be spending more time with my partner, that thought is actually focused on what you’re not doing instead of what you want to be doing. It’s hard to get motivated to do something different when you’re focused on what you’re not doing right.
SHOULD SPARKS NEGATIVE EMOTIONS.
Think about the last time you used the word “should.” How did it feel? Usually, it makes you (or someone else) feel guilty, unhappy, or annoyed. If you’re thinking about what you should’ve done in the past, you usually feel upset with yourself for not adhering to your future self’s expectations. If you’re thinking about what you should be doing now, you might feel guilty for not acting in accordance of what’s expected of you. And if you’re thinking about what others should be doing, you might end up feeling resentful. There are very few situations (if any) when the word “should” evokes a positive response.
SHOULD TAKES YOU OUT OF THE PRESENT.
The word “should” is always focused on what should have happened in the past or what you expect to happen in the future, making it the exact opposite of staying present. Even when the word is referring to the present moment (as in, I should be working right now…), what it’s literally means is: In the next moment, I should begin working because I’m not working right now. In the present moment, like it or not, you’re not doing what you “should” be doing. A lack of acceptance for what’s happening right now (regardless of whether that thing is positive or negative) is one of the best ways to become unhappy and stressed.
SHOULD STEALS YOUR AUTONOMY.
Because “should” isn’t a great motivator (see above), it often leaves you feeling frustrated when you’re not doing what you think you should be doing. When you don’t accomplish what you’ve tried to motivate yourself to do, you can feel as if you don’t have control over your own actions. For example, if you think to yourself, I should stop reading and get to work, but you keep reading anyway, it feels as if you’re not in control. Because “should” takes your focus away from your current actions, it takes away from the freedom to do what you want to do (even if that activity isn’t what’s expected of you).
SHOULD AVOIDS ACCEPTANCE.
One of the biggest downsides of the word “should” is that it doesn’t allow you to accept what is. When you think something or someone should be different, you’re not focusing on what’s actually happening. You’re contradicting what is, for no purpose other than to fuel your own expectations. This also applies to inner “shoulds,” like, I shouldn’t be feeling jealous of my best friend, or I should be happy for him even though I’m very angry with him. Instead of expecting yourself to feel a certain way (and labeling those feelings as good or bad), what if you just accepted them for what they are? What if instead of challenging those feelings, you accepted them and looked at them more closely for clues about who you are?
SHOULD NEGATES SELF-LOVE.
Just as “should” contradicts the present moment, it also negates self-love. Focusing on “should,” you’re taking a step away from loving yourself. You’re focusing on aspects of yourself that could be rather loving what already is. When you use the word “should,” you’re not embracing a true acceptance of yourself (including the parts you don’t love…). Should is like a judging pair of eyes, looking at you disapprovingly. With the word “should,” you’re casting judgment on yourself and, more often than not, you’re devaluing yourself by allowing feelings of “less than” to creep into your consciousness.
SHOULD STRAINS RELATIONSHIPS.
Should isn’t just about what you think you should be doing — it’s also used frequently when it comes to what you think others should be doing, and this can cause some major problems in relationships. It’s normal to have expectations of others, but when your relationships are centered around these expectations (as so many are), this can cause some major problems. What would happen if you were to love without expectation? What would your relationships be like if you removed the word “should”? Should puts a lot of pressure on relationships and often doesn’t add anything worthwhile.
SHOULD IGNORES ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
Instead of focusing on what’s been done, “should” focuses on what could be done differently. What if, instead of focusing on what you want to do, you focus on what you’ve done? I recently started tracking what I’ve accomplished each day alongside my to-do list and it’s been so interesting to see how much I actually accomplish on the days I feel like I’ve “done nothing.” Even when you don’t feel as if you’ve adhered to others expectations (or your own), there are many, many things you’ve done well. Should doesn’t let you focus on those, which is another reason you might be better off without it!
Okay, so now you probably see what a negative impact should can have on your thoughts and your life. But what are you supposed to do about it if you find yourself using the dreaded “s” word? How are you supposed to get things accomplished without knowing what you “should” be doing? Here are some of the best tips I’ve found…
- Don’t beat yourself up for “shoulds.”They’re normal and they’re a really hard habit to break. When you find yourself saying the s-word, pause for a moment and take notice of it. Recognize that it’s been said and that it means you’re focusing on something other than the present moment. Then move forward to the next steps.
- Focus on the benefits of doing what you “should.”Inspired by this great article on Tiny Buddha, this tip is about focusing on the benefits of doing something other than what you’re currently doing. For example, if you find yourself saying, I should be more social, reframe that “should” to focus on the benefits and think instead, I feel really good when I hang out with my friends and it’s nice to get out of the house once and awhile. Focusing on the benefits you’ll receive is much better than focusing on what you’re lacking or not doing.
- Explore what’s beyond the “should.”Sometimes “should” has a good purpose, but sometimes it exists because it’s part of someone else’s purpose (or just a result of general societal pressure to be a certain way). When you feel a should coming on, look at it closely to see if it adds value to your life. Ask yourself why you feel you should do something. Sometimes you’re seeking something basic (like love) in a roundabout way. “Should” is often a sign of inner conflict and it’s something that should be looked into, not immediately dismissed.
- Change the “sh” to a “c” or a “w.”This Psychology Today article notes that “should” leads to feelings of anxiety, stress, and lack of control, while the words “could” or “would” are motivating and encourage a take-charge attitude. Changing a couple of letters works especially well when dealing with external shoulds. For example, saying to your partner, It would be great if you could take out the trash is going to be much more effective than You should be taking out the trash. “Could” and “would” encourage autonomy and freedom, two things that are actually great motivators.
Most of us have the word “should” pretty engrained in how we think and talk, making it a difficult word to completely remove from our lives, but if we’re open to being aware of how we use it (and when), we’ll be more likely to cut down on the amount of “should”s in our lives (or at least understand why we have the “should”s we do!). Think about what your “shoulds” are and see if you can reframe them in a positive (and more productive!) way.
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