Stop saying I should and start saying I will

Don’t should yourself in the foot

Neurolinguistic programming and sympathetic self-talk help to create a compassionate dialogue with yourself and others. Discover how swapping out “should” for “want” changes your life for the better.

How many times today have you started a thought or sentence with the words, “I should”? It’s always right there on the tip of your tongue: “I should go for a run; I shouldn’t eat that croissant; I should be practical and not follow my dreams; I should be happy, so why aren’t I?” Every day, we rain the dictate of “should” on ourselves until we become drenched in dissatisfaction with the life we’re leading. Implicit in this seemingly innocuous verb are judgement and recrimination laced with a sense of obligation. Most times when we “should” ourselves it has very little to do with what we want or what feels good, but rather more to do with what is supposedly right for us. This internal conflict results in making life a chore instead of a genuine choice. It’s time to stop this eternal tug of war and swap out “should” for “want”.

Why should you?

We are in a constant battle with the life we think we should be leading as opposed to the one we are actually living. The chasm that exists in the middle is where unhappiness resides. The rise of anxiety and depression in Western society can be attributed to many causal factors. There are too many to enumerate, but we know that they stem from both within our own being as well as external or environmental factors.

Every day we see images posted on social media that make us feel badly about ourselves. Instagram could readily be relabelled “Insta-glum”. We are constantly been told that we should be striving for a better life. It is little surprise that at the heart of much mental anguish today is this notion that we’re just not enough. The constant self-flagellation and berating mean we can easily slip into a shame spiral. Self-harm is one of the biggest problems in young people today. And so much of it comes from this sense that they could, would, should be so much more.

Deciphering between the helpful and harmful “shoulds” — based on your innate values which actually define you — means that you can move closer to living your true life.

Negative self-talk tends to trump positive self-talk, which inevitably results in chronic dissatisfaction. Every single one of us has said a version of the following: “I could be more successful if only I was smarter”; or “If I was better looking I wouldn’t be alone”; and then there is the perennial: “I should lose weight so I can be happier.” Could, would and should are the semantic triumvirate of disillusionment. Sadly, people are no longer content with who they are or what they have but are mired in the misery of all they should be. Embedded in the word “should” is judgement, and it is usually steeped in a critical evaluation of self. Worse still, we often impose this dirty word on others.

Conflict between couples often kicks off with the lament of what the other isn’t doing, pointing the finger at what they should be doing or could be doing better. What is truly detrimental and even traumatising is telling a child that they should have done better on a test or need to figuratively “pull their socks up” on the soccer field. You’re never too young to not feel good enough. This language, laden with judgement and disapproval, only reinforces that they are lacking. Even before kids are out of nappies, they learn the derogatory language of “should”, and so the cycle of inadequacy begins and is perpetuated.

How society shoulds on us

Beyond the self-legislation that we impose upon ourselves, we are taught as soon as we are cognitive that we must follow rules if we are to get on in life. What we should or shouldn’t do is implicit in the daily conduct of our lives. We are obliged to live by the rules of society and for the most part we accept that law and order is important for us to feel safe and secure. This is how society functions.

There are also the social conventions that evolve and are adopted based on the times we live in. Wearing masks in a pandemic becomes the new norm and part of how a community works together for the common good. While mandated to wear masks, there is an overriding sense of social responsibility to which most of us conform. Duty or moral obligation comes into play rather than just following the rule of law. In this way, the concept of should has much deeper implications because of moral imperatives and ethical considerations.

Then there are the unspoken norms in society which ensure civility and concord. “Appropriate behaviour” is instilled in us from the time we are children, so we instinctively know how to act or present in a variety of environments or situations. We wouldn’t floss our teeth in a restaurant or text in a yoga class. And it is frowned upon if social norms are breached. These precepts offer a code of conduct by which to live. And this also moves into the moral landscape. For instance, being honest in our dealings or understanding the old precept that a “person is as good as their word” is deemed morally correct behaviour. These accepted wisdoms can be viewed as the good “shoulds” that ensure a life is led with a sense of decency and propriety. Of course, some of us choose to follow or not to follow these guidelines based on our values or culture, and this is when the conceptual notion of should has shades of grey.

It is both interesting and ironic to note that while we can show rational judgement when should is imposed on us in a societal framework when it comes to managing “should” in our own lives we tend to take a much more hard-line view. And this is when should really does become a dirty word.

The semantics of should

Technically speaking, should is a word that always precedes or qualifies a verb (such as do, be or have). Interestingly, this modal verb is in good company with other words such as could, must or need, which effectively perform the same function. These verbal bedfellows are all infused with a sense of imperativeness which affects how we think about ourselves or a situation.

Language matters. Words matter. If we consciously think about and moderate how and when we use this or a similar type of word we may in fact propagate a more compassionate view of ourselves. Neurolinguistic programming is a form of therapy that uses language-based interventions to change behaviours with the intention of enhancing a client’s confidence and decision-making processes. While this didactic therapeutic approach may not actually address the deeper root causes of people’s issues, it can still act as a starting point to raise self-awareness.

The should-self and the want-self are always waging a war with each other.

But formal therapy isn’t required to retrain your thinking. By consciously engaging in sympathetic self-talk anyone can affect a more compassionate dialogue with themselves and those with whom they interact. Swapping out “should” for “want” or employing phrases such as “it’s important to me” or “I value” changes so much of how we view and appraise ourselves. Even the phraseology sounds less confrontational than “I should be.” Subsequently, we become less judgemental and take greater ownership of our lives, while being a whole lot kinder to ourselves and those we would otherwise scrutinise or criticise.

Should vs want

Psychologists often speak of the cognitive dissonance that their clients experience. In our daily lives, we all live with some form of dissonance, which essentially is the proposition of holding two opposing or conflicting ideas which produce distress in our lives. The beliefs we hold may not be reflected in our actual behaviour. For instance, we may want to be in a committed relationship with a view to having a family but we are inevitably attracted to mysterious loners who we know won’t stick around. This disparity results in despair as we find it hard to believe that we can act in ways that contravene our strongly held value system. But we do this every day and in every way.

We see this dissonance play out on other psychological levels as we often feel torn between what we want to do and what we should do. And this plays out in the choices we make. This is a form of intrapersonal conflict — effectively the detrimental dialogue we have with ourselves. The should-self and the want-self are always waging a war with each other. This dissonance results in spasmodic behaviour and outcomes. We often feel displaced no matter what we choose. Our fears or our desires to be accepted often supersede what we really want in order to live a truthful existence. We see this with people who feel they need to follow cultural norms or religious practices where there are dictates on how they should live. But even at a simple, day-to-day level we experience the “should” curse. For instance, it may be that you don’t want to drink at a party, but you feel as though you should so as not to be seen as a bore.

Rather than just choosing one or the other, the pathway to peace is to find the balance between should and want. It doesn’t need to be binary in the sense of either/or. When you are open to this notion that should and want are different sides of the same coin then you will find that you can hold both notions without capitulating to dysfunctional dissonance. You can slowly let go of all the dictates that grip you and move toward a place of self-acceptance. Deciphering between the helpful and harmful “shoulds” — based on your innate values which actually define you — means that you can move closer to living your true life. For instance, accepting that you should eat less sugar if diagnosed with onset diabetes is a constructive use of should because you value good health. But denying yourself the pleasures of eating well in order to conform to a body image to which you don’t even subscribe is a destructive should, as this denies you any agency over your own body.

In fact, when we give into “should” without really engaging with why we are doing so we surrender governance over ourselves. It is our job to look after what is in our best interests and what reflects our true values. We should be deferring to what is right and real for us and no one else. After all, isn’t it is far more comforting and reassuring to belong to yourself rather that to belong to an idea of who you should be?

The dos and don’ts of should

  • Think about the moral obligations or ethical considerations when it comes to doing the right thing: you should apologise for hurting someone even if you don’t want to.
  • Think about what feels right to do as opposed to what you think should do. After a tough week, if you really want a Saturday sleep-in even though guilt dictates you should get up early to do chores, sometimes being kind to yourself is the better option.
  • Weigh up the cost to self if you do or don’t do what you think you should do.
  • Ask yourself if these “shoulds” are your expectations or others’ expectations of you.
  • Evaluate whether something is a good should (constructive) or a bad should (destructive). “I should pay my credit card rather than splurge on that handbag” — self-restraint vs self-gratification.
  • Consider your passions, values and what really drives you. Is what you’re doing actually matching your values? Do you want to lose weight because you should or because you’d love to get back into your favourite jeans?
  • Should yourself only if something really matters to you.

You should know better

Now we should all know better to not should our life away! It’s just too short. Life is all about rules, so why impose a whole set of arbitrary dictates when we all have the autonomy to decide which personal life rules we want to follow. So the trick is to really know yourself, to embody what your core values are and to realise what matters to you. Then, with confidence, act on these innate beliefs. When you work this out then it should be easy to drop the shoulds and defer to the wants, loves and truth of being you.

Life is tough enough, so don’t should yourself in the foot.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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