Think back to the past few months, or even days. How many times have you told yourself you “should” be doing something?
From relatively minor things like eating more vegetables to bigger things like buying a house, “I should…” (or “I shouldn’t…”) is a phrase that is part of most people’s internal dialogue—and largely, we don’t even realize it. Our self-talk is more powerful than we might suspect, so even though “should” sounds innocuous enough, it can be incredibly damaging when we repeat it day in and day out.
Social media and advertising are notorious for inciting what many call “compare and despair,” so it’s not surprising that they have only exacerbated the “should.” We spend hours each day looking at other people’s meals, activities, bodies, etc., internalizing what we “should” be doing or what we “should” look like—and how much better our lives could be if we did.
Here are a few examples that I’ve noticed myself and my close friends saying a lot. (Maybe you’ll relate to some of these, too.)
- I should go to the gym more.
- I should learn to cook more sophisticated meals.
- I should travel more and do more exciting things.
- I should be married by 30.
- I shouldn’t be this upset about something so trivial.
- I should have done a better job of standing up for myself.
- I shouldn’t have cellulite on my legs.
- I should care enough about interior design to have any sort of décor around my apartment besides a singular framed photo of Derek Jeter. (Oh, that one’s just me?)
I’m sure no one is reading this article and thinking that these statements are particularly good or productive things to be saying to yourself. But why exactly is “should” so bad?
For starters, “should” is an ineffective form of self-criticism.
When we tell ourselves that we “should” be doing something, we’re implicitly reinforcing the idea that we’re not doing that thing. This criticism, though subtle, creates anxiety and stress in our minds and bodies. That stress actually inhibits our ability to do the thing we think we should do, thus creating a vicious cycle of inaction. When we say “should,” we’re trying to use a negative emotion to create a positive behavior—and that almost never works.
“Should” is the opposite of acceptance.
“Should” statements aren’t motivators—they’re judgmental and shame-based statements that suggest that we don’t accept who or where we currently are. When you think something should be different, you’re not focusing on what’s actually happening. Instead of telling yourself you “should” be doing something or you “should” be feeling a certain way, accept what you are currently doing or how you are currently feeling. It’s possible to have goals without undermining yourself from the start. It’s possible to move toward non-judgment and still accomplish everything you want to. And it’s possible to want to be in a better place while also accepting where you currently are.
The things we think we should do are often not actually what we want.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory—so here’s a personal example. I always did really well in school, had good grades, was toward the top of my class, etc. I consider myself someone who loves learning and being in an academic environment. For years, I told myself I “should” go back to school to get my master’s degree because “that’s what someone of my intelligence level should do.”
But when I really thought about the reasons why I wanted to do it, they were all superficial. I wanted to get my master’s so that other people would know I’m smart, or so that I could say I have my master’s—not because it would benefit my career or because I had an interest in a specialized field.
Most of the time, the idea of what we “should” do comes from a societal belief about the perfect person—but what’s perfect for one person is not always perfect for another. This isn’t at all to say that people who go to grad school are doing it for the wrong reasons, or that I’ll never go to grad school myself. But if I do, it will be because I genuinely want to—not just because I thought I should.
“Okay, Christina. That’s all well and good, but if it’s such a habit, how can I stop myself from saying it? And what should I say instead?” –you, probably
Start noticing when you use “should” or “shouldn’t”—and question it.
Once you start to make a conscious effort to do this, you’ll notice it so much more often than you think. It may take a while, but every time you catch yourself, stop yourself mid-thought. Have a real, honest conversation with yourself about why you’re thinking you should (or shouldn’t) do this thing, where that reasoning comes from, and whether or not you actually agree with it.
Redirect your focus.
Focus on the benefits of doing what you “should.” For example, if you find yourself thinking that you should go out more and be more social, focus on the advantages of doing that. Maybe getting out of the house and experiencing interpersonal connection usually ends up making you feel good—so think about that instead of just thinking you “should” go out more because you currently don’t.
Edit and redo the sentence.
Do a mental version of “find and replace.” Here are some phrases to substitute:
- “I could…”
- “I want to…”
- “I can…”
- “I get to…”
- “I choose to…”
- “It would be [interesting / beneficial / rewarding] for me to…”
Phrases like these encourage freedom and autonomy, whereas “should” implies a lack of control. Give yourself the power to make the choice instead of approaching it as if you’ve already failed.
In conclusion, “should” is a harmful, and ultimately pointless, word that gets in the way of reality. There’s nothing wrong with having goals—in fact, it’s crucial to have goals in order to get where you want to go. But “should” forces you to start from a place of being less than or not good enough, instead of a place of strength, comfort, and empowerment. Sure, it’s only one word, but removing it from your vocabulary can have a huge impact. Try it out—but not only because you think you should. 😉