Why I Think Should Is A Harmful Word
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
I am a real believer that saying should to ourselves and to others is harmful, and it's something I try not to do anymore... but of course occasionally I slip up, as we all do because we're human. I'm far more likely to say should to myself than to others and when that happens I like to think about what I can learn about myself from this. I didn't always think like this though and in the past I used to say should to myself and in my thoughts about others frequently, so what made me address this inner dialogue and what do I mean when I say should is a harmful word?
What does should actually mean?
I think there are a few problems with the word should and they all signify a deeper feeling that is happening in our psyche. For starters, when we say should we are focusing on a different reality rather than the one we are in, it is the opposite of accepting where you are. For instance, if I sleep in because my toddler woke me up in the night and on waking up I say to myself "I should already be out of bed!" I am focusing on a made up version of my morning rather than accepting that I've slept in and I can't do anything to change that now. We are much better off and happier if we can accept our reality and be understanding & compassionate towards ourselves, rather than judging, shaming and feeling guilty. When I tell myself I should be doing something I am highlighting to myself that I am not doing it and this causes me to feel unnecessary guilt.
When we tell ourselves we should or shouldn't be doing something it often comes from outside of us rather than from within us, it's often a way of comparing ourselves to others or to societal standards. When we say "I should be going to the gym more" we are internalising an idea and making ourselves feel guilty for not living up to the standard we have decided on in our minds. When it is something we truly desire and that comes from within us, we are able to do it without pressurising ourselves or feeling guilty. I find a good way of working out the difference between the two is to swap the word should in the sentence to the word want and see how it feels when you say it aloud, "I want to go to the gym more" has a very different meaning to "I should be going to the gym more."
The Oxford English dictionary says should is "used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticising someone's actions." See how the definition uses the word criticising... this means that every time you say should to yourself or about someone else you are critcising their actions, so of course this doesn't feel good. Using the word should is judgmental and not encouraging however well-meaning it is intended.
Why does this matter?
As I have explained, saying should to yourself and to others is a form of criticism and a judgment as well as a denial of reality. This is important because criticism causes feelings of shame which in turn contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress. Feeling anxious and stressed will actually make it more difficult to achieve the goals you set for yourself as well as making your day to to day life a lot harder and more unpleasant. Constantly focusing on things you think you should be striving for may mean that you are not aware of what you truly want or desire in life and therefore prevent you from making progress on goals that are meaningful and in alignment with your true self. Often when people come to therapy they are telling themselves a narrative full of shoulds (e.g. "I should be getting married" "I should be over him by now", "I shouldn't be finding this so hard" "I should be going to uni") and part of what we work together on is understanding how these should statements are harming them and what their true dreams and aspirations are... the ones that come from them and not from others!
Another reason that these statements have such a negative impact on us is because they make us feel that there is a huge gap between who we are and who we want to be or our 'ideal self'. This makes us feel miserable because it reinforces the idea that we are not good enough as we are and makes us feel that we will only be worthy when we change. But often the things we tell ourselves we should be doing are not even things we truly want and so we never make progress towards them, creating a situation where we feel stuck and unhappy. Learning to understand what you truly want for your life and what you have been conditioned to believe will help you to become happier in your own skin and to feel fulfilled by your life.
How do I reframe the shoulds?
1. When you catch yourself thinking a should statement practise curiosity not judgement. Think about where that belief comes from and who told you it, did someone explicitly tell you that or did you pick up that belief from subtle messaging from society? Understanding where this belief came from will help you to distance yourself from it and begin to unpick how you truly think and feel separate from it.
2. Rephrase the statement to an "I want..." statement instead. Some things we don't want to do in the moment but they do have a positive benefit for us so instead of shaming ourselves with an "I should...." statement focus on the benefits when you rephrase. Instead of "I should be doing more exercise" try "I feel much better when I move my body and therefore I want to incorporate more exercise into my day". See how this language can make it a positive statement instead?
3. Practise accepting your thoughts and feelings and being compassionate towards yourself when you struggle. Lots of people I work with judge their thoughts and feelings as negative and try to push them away saying "I shouldn't feel like this", but this doesn't help you move forwards and can actually make you feel stuck. When you feel strong emotions try accepting that's how you feel and think about what that emotion is telling you about what you need right now, for instance anger might be telling you that an injustice has occurred or jealously might be highlighting something in your life that you feel you are lacking.
I am an Integrative Therapist who works remotely online with millennials who are anxious, lost, and overwhelmed. I work collaboratively with people to support them in their emotional wellbeing, to develop skills in self-care and to foster a deeper understanding of themselves. If you would like to find out how I can help you to understand your emotions better, please book a free consultation to see if we are well suited to work together.
Alternatively, please come connect with me over on Instagram - I would love to get to know you further.