How many times a day do you use the word “should”? I use it a lot, I’ve discovered! And also its counterpart “shouldn’t.” A friend of mine did some coaching recently and was told she needed to do a “should” detox and I loved the idea so much that I’ve magpied it.
We use the word “should” as a way of motivating ourselves, or keeping ourselves, or others, in check. But if you stop to think about it, you start to realise how insidious the word can be.
“I should work harder”
“I should focus on the kids more”
“My house should be tidier”
“I should earn more”
Or, if something distressing like, say, a global pandemic happens, we think, “I should be grateful,” “I shouldn’t get so frustrated,” or “I should be helping others.”
Telling yourself that you “should” be doing more or being more doesn’t actually help you to do more or be more – all it does is leave you feeling like you’re not enough as you already are.
Let’s break it down. The Oxford English Dictionary definition of should is: “Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticising someone’s actions.” Note the word criticising there.
From where I’m standing, using the word “should” is basically a form of self-criticising – and when has anyone ever performed better when they feel criticised?
1. Shoulds are counter-intuitive
When we criticise ourselves we are rejecting ourselves, albeit in a subtle way, and therefore creating anxiety and stress in our minds and bodies. When you are in a state of fight or flight mode, your brain shuts down the ability to problem solve. So it becomes a vicious circle. You think you “should” be doing something but even just the thought of it is creating stress which is inhibiting you from taking action.
2. Using should means you’re not accepting reality
As Dr. Shad Helmstetter explains in his book What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, when we tell ourselves that we “should” be doing something, we’re implicitly reinforcing the idea that we’re not doing it.
You say, “I should be exercising right now…” and the unspoken end to that sentence is, “but I’m not.”
3. The things we think we should do, aren’t often actually what we want
Whoah, that’s a biggie – but it’s true. “I should be able to cope,” you might say. “Why should you? Who told you you should?” Where has this belief come from? Why do you think this way? It might take a while, but can you get to the root of this belief and see if it is aligned to your values?
To explain what I mean, I’ll give you a personal example. Some of my biggest shoulds revolve around writing. I should be writing more. I should still be a journalist. I should have written a novel by now.
Where does this come from? Well, if I really unpack it, it comes from reading books aged four. It comes from coming top of my class in English and being told by my English teacher in school that I should (there’s that word again) become a writer. It comes from studying English at university and getting a first. It comes from working my nuts off in newspapers and magazines (and largely hating it) because I believed I was good at it. I wasn’t, actually. The thing I was good at was talking to people, empathising with them, listening to them. Researching projects. Interviewing experts. Not the writing part.
The truth is, I have no big idea for a novel, never have done. I love writing but I’m not certain I have a book in me. When I think about what I would really like to do, it’s lie on exotic beaches and READ books… that other people have written.
My god it’s freeing to say that out loud! Now that I’ve got that off my chest maybe I WILL actually write a book... Or maybe I won’t.
Here’s how to take a “should” detox.
1. Write a list of all the “shoulds” that come to mind, no matter how big or small. Keep a running list over a day or two and whenever you find yourself thinking, “Oh I shouldn’t say that, or I should do that,” write it down. Even better, if you can, tell someone you are on a should detox and get them to point them out to you when you say them.
2. Evaluate your list and work out which ones are really important to you. Which ones make your heart sing/break? Will they absolutely make your life better? Are they in line with your integrity? Do you really, really care – deep down?
3. With the remaining shoulds, turn them into “coulds.” The word “could” implies you have a choice and at the end of the day we always have a choice. To use a banal example, “I should be doing the vacuuming,” turns into “I could be doing the vacuuming, but I choose not to. I will live with dirty floors and drink this dirty martini instead. Hoorah!” That way, you remove the guilt from the situation and accept that your choice will have consequences, but to hell with it! I could write a book, but maybe I’ll just read them instead. Acceptance. Acceptance. Acceptance.
There is nothing wrong with having a goal if it’s based on something you genuinely want for yourself. However, if you’re starting from a place of “should” then you’re undermining yourself from the start. Insecurity is not a sustainable motivator. Far better to work on not only accepting yourself for who you are right now, but realising how great you are. Once you have your confidence and self esteem in check, then you can work on your aspirations.
A big part of this “should” dilemma for me is worrying about what others think of me. “I should do this because otherwise people will judge me.” It’s something I am working on because I know it is just the ego. It is also a futile exercise. People will think what they think and it actually has nothing to do with me.
One of the nicest things I’ve found about getting older, and also reading yoga philosophy and learning about myself a bit more, is the ability to let go. A friend said recently that she’s becoming perimenopausal and realised this when she started noticing she gave zero f*cks about what other people thought. I thought YES! Bring on the menopause.
So have a go at removing that one little word “should” from your vocabulary. It’s tough. I’ve only been doing it for a few days and it is mighty challenging. But hugely powerful.
“To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are,” Sven Goran Eriksson.