Five Reasons to Dump “Should” from Your Life

“You don’t have to replace ‘should’ in every thought and communication cold-turkey. Just replacing a few habitual ‘shoulds’ will make a difference in mood and energy, and it gets easier once you create some momentum.”

I guess I should begin… oops! I’d like to start out with a characterization of the word “should…”

There are few more self-righteous, stress-producing, and energy-sapping words than “should.”

In fact, in his book Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy, Dr. David D. Burns, a cognitive therapist, treats “should statements” as direct contributors to cognitive distortions, and devotes considerable space to revising these dysfunctional thoughts for the good of anyone seeking to improve their mood.

Should strips us of our authority, and puts it outside us in some power or arbitrary rule or belief that takes our choice away, and enslaves us.

“Should” is the basis of artificial guilt, a useless, punishing, emotion.

Any question including should or any of its forms is an invitation to emotional slavery.

“Shouldn’t you take Gina to school?”

Let’s try that again…

“Would it be better to drive Gina to school?”

The difference is slavery, vs. choice. If I am asked a question, I have a choice; if am served a “should” I’m getting a subtle or overt attempt at manipulation, based on someone else’s view of “what’s right.”

No thanks.

And yes, the “Wouldn’t it be better…” form of the question is also pregnant with the expectations of another, but do you know what? It’s polite, and invites my answer. That goes a long way with me.

As a friend puts it, “Here’s a good reason someone ought not to use “should” with me: when someone tells me I should do something, I feel like punching them in the face.”


Yet, how may of us “should” ourselves to death (by degree) every single day?

“I should keep a cleaner house.”
“I should eat better.”
“I should have told her I loved her…”

Let’s not forget that when we point “should” at others, it’s another way for us to suffer.

Pointing should at someone else could give us the momentary pleasure of “winning” a point or a moral victory, but at what cost? Self-righteousness feels heavy, and saps energy, and makes the lips thin and the face lined. Would you rather be right… or happy? There are times when we find ourselves choosing between the two, and lately, I choose “happy.”

Sure, there are those situations wherein you see something so appalling, so against the grain, that you must blurt out, “Things shouldn’t be this hard!” or “No one should have to endure that.” But as Byron Katy, author of Loving What Is would ask, “Is that true?”

No, it isn’t. Your should statement is the output of your comparison of your ideal, with reality, and not reality itself. Therefore, in any case when we compare reality with an ideal, and use “should,” we are introducing resistance and stress into our life. We create an instant conflict between what we want, and what we’ve got.

So what to do? Isn’t it okay to want change? Isn’t it okay to have ideals?

Of course.

But what if I told you that you could have ideals and change and preferences without the resistance and stress of should-guilt?

You can.

Shedding the chains of “should” doesn’t mean that we need let go of our preferences, ideals, or desires. It simply means that we allow shades of gray. It means that we surrender our need to judge reality (good or bad), and instead focus our energy on what we can do about what is—whether that is a solution to a challenge, or a celebration.

So without further ado, here are 5 reasons to avoid “should” in thought, speech, and written word…

  1. “Should” makes you feel awful. Big “shoulds” will drag you right down to murky emotional depths faster than a boat-anchor sinks through deep water, and little “shoulds” will kill ya by degree. In fact, whenever you find that you aren’t feeling so chipper, just take a look at how well you’ve played the “Comparison & Should” game, and stop it, and watch your energy go right up. (Please see my blog, “Dare not to Compare” for more on my take on comparison.)
  2. “Should” makes others feel awful. No one likes directives from anyone. No one likes the feeling of judgment pointed at them. There are much better, much better-feeling ways of introducing expectation or preference or ideals than pointing a “should” at someone else.
  3. “Should” stops creativity and innovation in their tracks. No one who is laboring under guilt or righteousness is experiencing the full range of their creativity. How can they, when they are in the grips of the outside force of “should?” With any thought or new idea subject to the “should executioner,” who dares to venture outside the framework? Throw enough “”shoulds” into a strategy session and brainstorming becomes re-warming.
  4. “Should” can hide our true wants. When we are applying “should” here and there, we are very often not listening to who we are, and what we really want. What we want is subjugated to the current “should” and this cruel master again determines what is going to happen, regardless of what other feelings we may have. Enough “shoulds” and some folks stop bothering to look at what their preferences and desires are.
  5. Without “should,” in your sentences, you will feel, sound, and look (on paper) like a better communicator. You’ll come across more interactive, inviting, approachable, and not self-righteous.

Now, I can’t complete this post without some more sentence examples. So here we go…

Instead of… Try…
“Shouldn’t we celebrate?” “Who feels like celebrating! I do!”
“She shouldn’t be acting like that at her age!” “She could have made a better choice, but that’s her…”
“I should mow the lawn…” “I’ll feel better if I get the lawn out of the way… that’s one thing off the today’s todo list.”
“I should eat better…” “I could probably feel better, and have more energy during my day, if I make a few small changes in my diet—ones that work for me.”
“He shouldn’t treat me that way!” “I’m looking for something better in the way we communicate with each other. I’m going to review my approach and look for some opportunities for improvement. I like knowing that in the end, I always have choices…”

You get the picture—it’s all about taking out the heaviness of “should,” and using language inclusive of possibility and positive outcome, choice, or change.

Think it’s a waste of time? Think again. Most folks are unhappy because they boil themselves by degrees in thoughts that don’t serve them, and not because there is any “one thing wrong” with their lives.

Some things to remember…

  1. You don’t have to replace “should” in every thought and communication cold-turkey. Just replacing a few habitual “shoulds” will make a difference in mood and energy, and it gets easier once you create some momentum.
  2. Have fun with it! This isn’t something you’re supposed grade yourself on. Please approach the exercise with a sense of fun and possibility!
  3. It’s easy to get sucked into the “should vortex” of others. “should thinking” is so prevalent that even those of us who practice the language of possibility (filled with “could” and “It would be nice if” and “could we possibly”), get sucked into old habits if we aren’t paying attention. Give your self some slack.

Perhaps you have additional suggestions for revising should statements, or enhancing the language of possibility. Should you wish too If you like, please comment with your thoughts and/or tips. 🙂

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