There are a few words and phrases that I’m pretty tuned into with clients in therapy. Words or phrases that tend to get us humans into trouble. Words and phrases that keep us feeling stuck, pressured, or guilty. Phrases that reinforce the unhealthy and dysfunctional cycles we sometimes get ourselves into. One of the words I tune into the most with clients is “should.” I should be able to handle this. I should be able to communicate more clearly. I shouldn’t get frustrated with my kids. I shouldn’t care what my friends think. I should eat healthier. I should have known better.
“Should” statements are one of the most damaging phrases we can use with ourselves, and we use them daily, if not hourly. “Should” statements typically bring about enormous amounts of shame and disappointment. They often shoot for unrealistic standards, blaming ourselves when we don’t meet them. They contribute to feelings of inadequacy and failure. “Should” statements cause us to give priority to things that society or someone else values, rather than the things we value. Should statements serve as that nagging voice, trying to make us feel guilty for what we’re not doing well, rather the things we are doing well. “Should statements” cause us to live in the past or the future, rather than existing in the present. They drain joy from the moment, sacrificing spontaneity and autonomy.
“Should” statements have some seriously negative consequences. So why on Earth do we use them?
Most of us use “should” statements as a way to motivate ourselves. We use “should” as a way to keep us in line, accountable, and on track. The problem is, “should” statements don’t really do any of those things. Think about some of the “should” statements you have used this week, or even just today. Take a second to jot these statements down or make a mental list. Notice the way you feel when you say these statements. Notice what emotions come up as you repeat your “should” statements back to yourself. My guess is you’re not feeling motivated, eager, confident, or prepared. I’m guessing you’re feeling somewhere between inadequate, defeated, unmotivated, or guilty.
Are you with me? Are you seeing the impact of our so called “motivating” tone? Good; I’m glad you’re board. (I read your nodding through the computer; I’m talented like that.) Let’s agree to shift our “should” statements. Here’s how to start:
Find a friend, neighbor, or coworker you trust, someone you have frequent contact with. Share this post with them, and talk about the impact that “should” statements have in each of your lives. Set a goal to better notice how frequently you say the word “should,” and hold one another accountable, by gently pointing out when you hear the other person “shoulding.” (Gently is the key word here. No one wants a finger-pointing, shame-loving, should-catching coach.) You likely don’t realize how often you say “should,” and having an accountability partner can help you notice how frequently you adopt unnecessary standards and a shaming tone.
What do you say? Do you find yourself frequently using “should” statements? Do you find yourself focusing on what you “should” do rather than what you are doing? The impact is more dangerous than you might think, so let’s work to shift these “should” statements, moving towards a place of fulfillment and satisfaction. Let’s do this!