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Shoulding on Yourself

Substitute 'could' for 'should.'
Substitute ‘could’ for ‘should.’

This is my third post about the use of common little words. My other two posts were about becoming mindful of the words “But” and “Just”. This one is about the word “Should” (as in “Ought to”).

We often hear (or think) things like, “They shouldn’t have done that” or “I shouldn’t feel this way”. Other examples are “I should lose weight” and “You should know better”.

I am not saying you shouldn’t say ‘should’; that would be ironic! I am saying that I’ve noticed that “should” (and its variations like “had better” and “supposed to”) can be a great impediment to change.

If we wish to change undesirable feelings, thoughts or behaviours, “shoulding” on ourselves implies that what we are currently doing (or did) is wrong, bad or incorrect compared to some ideal or better standard.  In this way, “should” is a veiled criticism and it can trigger a lot of shame in us. This is unhelpful, because when we feel ashamed we feel so down on ourselves we are incapable of truly reflecting and learning. The learning centres of our brain literally switch off.

Instead of “should”, try substituting other phrases such as “could”, “would like”, “more helpful” or “wiser”. This shift will result in a more compassionate exchange or thought process. It also helps you take full responsibility for your own needs and feelings about a matter.

For example, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t do that” you could say, “It is not so helpful to do that”. Instead of “You should have done it this way” say, “I would like it this way” or “It might be wiser to try it this way”. Instead of thinking, “I shouldn’t be so shy” it’s more helpful to say to yourself, “I wish I could behave more confidently”.

Notice how different it feels to say things in this way?

By doing this, you are basically transforming your “should” into a “want”. You are saying you want to do something differently and therefore, you will be more intrinsically motivated, rather than feeling that you “have to” change out of fear or obligation.

Shoulding on yourself (or your partner, your children, or your co-workers) often does more harm than good. If you want to make a change or help others to make change, it is wise to avoid it in all forms and find other ways to say what you want.

 

2 thoughts on “Shoulding on Yourself

  1. I’ve always found the guilt associated with should an excellent motivator. I would have a task (take out the garbage) I’d say ‘I should do that. I will do that’. And I’d let myself off the hook because I had committed to doing the task at some point in the future.

    Then the garbage wouldn’t get taken out. I promised myself that if ever I said ‘I will do that’ I had to move to the ‘I am doing that’ stage.

    If I stopped at ‘I should do that’ the guilt would keep the issue in my mind and not let me off the hook until I’d resolved to take care of the issue.

    1. Hi Dan, thanks for your comment. I agree that “should” is not always toxic or unhelpful. I still use it, as in: “We should get going”. Here, the meaning is “I’d really like to get going”. In your example, I am guessing you would really like to have that garbage out of the house and in the outside bin. So the “should” is functional and a bit of guilt is probably healthy or adaptive. When “should” triggers too much guilt or even shame, I think it becomes problematic and counter-productive. Hope that adds clarity to the issue.

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