At least once a day, on the couch in my office, something awesome happens. A client is talking, when suddenly, they stop mid-sentence. They pause, smile, and then say something to the effect of, “Nope, I’m not going to say it!” They continue talking, but now in a slightly different direction. Moments like these make my psychologist heart sing. Because mid-sentence, without any prompting from me, this person has caught themself mid “should” statement.
Almost anyone who works with me in therapy knows that the word “should” is a no no in my office. I should start. I should go. I shouldn’t get so worked up. I should’ve known better. I shouldn’t have waited so long. The word seems innocent, perhaps even helpful in some cases. Yet should is one of the most dangerous words in your vocabulary, and it does a number on your mental health.
But should statements are sneaky. They’re dangerous. And they’re subtly making you feel awful.
Most of us use the word “should” because we think it will be motivating. We think it will drive our behavior and get us to do something we’re supposed to do. I should work out. I should eat healthier. I should call my parents more. I should apply. You use should statements as a way to highlight the path you think you should be taking. You think that should statements will get your butt in gear and push you in a direction of being productive and engaged.
However, should statements aren’t motivating. In fact, they’re the opposite. The word “should” contributes to enormous amounts of shame. It leads to discouragement and despair. Should statements highlight and exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and feeling less than. Similarly, should statements contribute to you feeling broken and defective, wondering what’s wrong with you.
Wondering how a single word can do so much damage? Here’s the hang up. There’s a second, unspoken half to should statements. You don’t actually verbalize it, but it’s in your head, doing loads of damage. “I should eat healthier, but I don’t because I’m lazy.” “I should call reach out, but I’m a crappy friend so I won’t.” “I shouldn’t have procrastinated, but I suck at time management.” You don’t actually speak the second half of should statements out loud, but it’s implied. It’s unconscious. Your brain beats you up without even realizing it. And that’s what makes should statements so destructive. That’s why should statements leave you swimming in shame and disappointment.
Let’s try a little experiment together. Right now, as you’re reading this, I want you to take a quick break. Sit back from your phone or computer, and take a breath. Now slowly, read the next few sentences. I should try harder. I should get up. I shouldn’t have said that. I should’ve known better.
When you read those, did you feel a surge of motivation? Did you feel pumped up? And were you energized to take on the task at hand? Of course not! My guess is that you felt deflated and discouraged just reading those phrases. You probably felt a sense of dread about the task mentioned. And you may have even noticed a physical reaction, sinking down in your chair or feeling sick to your stomach. This is the toll that should statements take. This is how a single word makes you feel awful. And you’re experiencing this cycle countless times a day, each and every time you use the word “should.”
So, at this point, you might be wondering, “If I’m not supposed to use the word should, then what am I supposed to say? If should statements are shameful, when what’s the alternative? The key is to make your language value driven and intentional, rather than shame and guilt filled. So instead of saying “I should,” try one of these. I’d like to. I want to. It’s important to me. I’ve made a commitment. This is a priority.
This intentional change in language elicits a subtle but important shift in mood. Instead of using shame to drive your behavior, you’re using your values. Instead of using guilt to get you going, you’re finding personal meaning. Rephrasing should statements highlights what’s important without the emotional baggage.
In the video above, I share a personal but relevant example. After a long day at work and a sleepless night with a baby, I remembered my plan to work out early the next morning. Immediately, I started grumbling and groaning, scheming how I could sleep in instead. Suddenly, my internal voice was chattering. “I should go,” I thought. “I should work out. I should just get up and do it.” I instantly felt my body sink. Dread and discouragement washed over me. My head started to hurt. But then, I caught myself. I heard my should statement. And I realized the impact it was having.
So, in that moment, I had a choice. I could change my language, or I could change the plan. But moving forward with that shame-filled should statement? Not happening. So I rephrased things. Instead of saying “I should work out,” I acknowledged “Working out is important to me. I didn’t go yesterday, and I made a commitment to go tomorrow. I know I’ll feel better after it’s done. I’m going to go.”
Now, in the spirit of keeping it real, I’ll be honest. That rephrased should statement didn’t make me jump off the couch, pumped and ready for a workout. But it changed the emotions. It changed my mood. And it reminded me why I want work out. Why I want to get up early. And why I want to keep that commitment. Now, values are the driving force, not shame.
Language matters. The way you talk to yourself, it matters. I say this time and time again. The words you use have a direct impact on how you feel. And should statements? They’re a quick ticket to feeling awful. So pay attention to your thoughts. Notice your language. What kinds of things do you use should statements about? Your body, your job, or your role as a parent? Your productivity, your procrastination, or your relationships. What things are you trying to motivate yourself about using the word “should”, and how does this make you feel?
Should statements are a breeding ground for shame and disappointment. They lead you to feel discouraged and defective before you even start. So get serious about eliminating the word “should” from your vocabulary. Embrace intentional and value driven language. It’ll be tough at first. But it matters. You matter. And it’s worth it.
Want more proof about the power of words? Discover the SINGLE word that can reduce your anxiety!