“I should really call my friend back.” “I should start doing yoga.” “I should want to spend time with my family.” “They should know why I’m mad at them.” “I shouldn’t feel this upset.” Does any of that sound familiar? If it does, what feeling comes up for you when you read those sentences or have similar thoughts?
When we use the word ‘should,’ it implies judgment, and can often lead to feelings of guilt or shame, especially when what ‘should’ happen doesn’t happen. Thinking about how things should be or how we ought to behave can put us in direct conflict with accepting the way things actually are. This can make it difficult to make peace with our own reality. An old boss of mine used to tell me, “Stop shoulding on yourself!” That phrase helped me think of the word ‘should’ as a verb – something we actually do to ourselves, or to the people around us.
So what happens when we “should” on ourselves? A researcher in muscle kinesiology found that when we say we ‘should’ do something, our body tenses up the same way as when we say that we ‘have to’ do something. It decreases our motivation, or desire to actually do the thing we say we should do, and makes us feel guilty. When we ‘should’ on others, there is also invariably judgment of their behavior. We may expect or even feel entitled to a certain treatment from others, and, in most cases, we feel disappointed.
So, what can we do we do instead? The first step is just to increase our awareness of how often we use the word should. When we start catching ourselves doing it, we then have the opportunity to see which kind of situations it comes up in, and whether or not there’s a pattern. Instances like “I should really go the gym this week” and “I should really order the salad” might give us some useful insight into some negative attitudes about our bodies and eating habits, while “I should call my mom” or “I should visit my nieces and nephews” might show us how often we’re connecting with people in our lives because we feel like we ought to, not because we really want to.
When we become more intentional about catching ourselves using the word ‘should,’ our perspective might start changing, and we can then use that moment to approach the situation differently. At that point, after we’ve become more aware of the unhelpful habit, we can begin trying to replace it with something else. Saying “I could,” “I would like to,” or “I will,” helps us manage our expectations, and be kinder to ourselves and others.
What do we risk if we continue to use the word should and make choices out of obligation and necessity? Well, we rob ourselves of genuine enjoyment of what we happen to be doing. Spending time in our bodies and eating nourishing foods can feel really good and be their own reward—but if we’re doing those things out of allegiance to what we think we should do, we turn the act into a chore. This is counterproductive because when things that are good for us become a chore, rather than a potential delight, we’ll tend to avoid them even more. This has a neurobiological basis: our brain craves pleasurable experiences (meaning ones that are most likely to produce dopamine), and therefore will actively avoid experiences associated with negative feelings.
If we really want to live differently – like seeing our families more or having healthier habits – but are struggling to actually implement change, we can co-opt our biochemistry by finding the positive feelings in those experiences. What would it feel like to replace the thought, “I should quit smoking,” with, “I love how it feels to breathe deeply when I don’t smoke,” or, “I love how good I smell when I don’t smoke”? Similarly, what would it feel like to replace the thought, “I should call my mom” with “I really love making my mom laugh,” or, “It would feel really good to share some recent personal victories with my mom”?
Lastly, when you remove ‘should’ from your vocabulary, you become more in touch with your own reality, and you become more aware of what you really want (even if it’s what you don’t want to want). For example, if you’re having a hard time getting up in the morning – from lack of motivation or a sense of dread – your subconscious may be trying to tell you that you’re not truly satisfied with your current situation. Accessing those feelings and taking an honest inventory of your life can be scary, but with support (from friends, and potentially with the help of a therapist), you can begin the process of transitioning from the make-believe world of ‘should’ to the joy of discovering and implementing your personal truths – not because you should, but because they feel good.