‘Should’ is Not Your Friend


‘Should’ is Not Your Friend

By Jason Smith November 21, 2023 11.21.2023 Share:
Communication Counseling Growth Guilt Intentionality Mindfulness Reflection Shame Therapy

I’d like to start with a little levity that I sometimes share with clients when they’re being too hard on themselves: “Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” If you can pardon the tacky humor, read on. I think there’s more here than meets the eye.

What should I do? 

I should really get on that.

I should’ve known better.

Commonplace Phrases

These phrases and many others are so commonplace, that they’re almost throwaways. We say them with as little planning as we ask about the weather. However, stop for a moment for a challenge: Imagine yourself as an actor. Your task is to say one of these phrases in the mirror while making whatever dramatic facial expression best fits the phrase. Go real quick, I’ll wait.

Now, what face were you making? If I had to guess, it would include anxiety, fear, disappointment, and even shame. Without incredible optimism, I can’t imagine many kind or loving uses for these phrases. And herein lies the problem: Most of us are going about our day automatically saying, writing, and thinking some of the most powerfully negative phrases in the English language. Spoiler alert: the common denominator is ‘should.’

Running on Autopilot 

As humans, we’ve evolved to be on autopilot a lot of the time, and often that’s okay. You’ve driven to your job a hundred times, so you don’t need a complex matrix of route analyses and risk assessments to get there. You kind of go on autopilot, and that’s okay. When you’re greeting your friends and coworkers you don’t need an in-depth meteorological survey to talk about the weather, and you don’t need to know the entire history of a sport to talk about the weekend’s big game. You kind of go on autopilot, and that’s okay.

The ’should problem’ arises when we continue our autopilot through thoughts and common phrases without realizing the power we sometimes give those phrases. For example, dictionary definitions of “should” don’t include acts like being morally good, trying your best, or being kind. “Should” is often defined as being related to duty and obligation, with particular emphasis on judgment and criticism. If this duty is important in your culture, failing to meet a ‘should’ can result in feeling shame. An unspoken logical framework for someone experiencing this shame might go something like this:

I should have done that > I didn’t do that > I failed an obligation > I am a failure > I feel ashamed

I ‘should’ add here that language is super complex in its entire field of study. But it’s widely considered to play a part in creating our meanings and realities. This can also vary greatly by person and culture. Read more about that here.

Effects of Shame on Mental Health

And so we’ve arrived at the worst-case consequence of being casual with this powerful word: shame. Shame and guilt are common problems. But a lot of us don’t realize that shame is bad for our mental health, including strong correlations with anxiety and depression. ‘Shame’ is like ‘should’ in a lot of ways. It’s very common, its practical uses in making life better are limited, and its power to make you feel awful is nearly limitless. ‘Should’ and ‘shame’ are not your friends.

Practicing Replacing ‘Should’

My suggestion? Practice replacing ‘should’ with thoughts and phrases that are closer to what you mean, what you’re feeling, or maybe even something you’re hoping for. Keep in mind that the criticizing nature of ‘should’ can be there even without the word itself. Here are some examples. Good luck!

“I should really call my friend.”
might become:
“I miss seeing my friends and I know they miss me, too. I’ll set a reminder to give them a call.”

“I really need to spend my money better.”
might become:
“My retirement is important to me. Maybe I could set aside some time each month to look at my progress towards saving.”

“I should really get this blog post written.”
might become
“I loved reading my colleagues’ posts. I bet I could come up with something interesting, too.”

If you’d like to discuss more with Jason, click here to schedule your appointment today. 

Newer Post: Am I Emotionally Immature? Older Post: Strengthening Your Relationship: The Power of Couples Therapy