“A verb used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticising someone’s actions.”
It’s a odd moment as a parent when a four year old corrects your table manners. Bill and I were having a debate about something over dinner last night, when Zoë suddenly piped up – with a wry smile on her face – ‘Daddy, you really shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.’
What could he say?
Guilty as charged.
That simple little statement got me thinking though. Because how often is the use of the word ‘should’ connected with feelings of guilt and shame? And not only that, if you look more closely at many of our lives, you’ll find most of us suffer from an acute case of ‘shoulditis.’
Here’s what I mean.
‘I should be more successful at work.’
‘I should weigh X number of pounds.’
‘I should have a super clean home.’
‘I should always look “put together.”
‘I should always say yes whenever people ask me for help’
‘I should be able to balance it all.’
‘I should keep my needs to myself.’
‘I should be more organized.’
‘I should know what they want.’
‘I should always reply when they expect me to.’
Exhausted even reading that list? I know I am!
And that’s because ‘Should’ is like a harsh boss who stands over us, holding us all to unrealistic high standards, and refusing to face the reality that we will never meet them.
What’s even worse is that our lives can be completely choc-a-bloc with ‘shoulds’ without us even realising it, because we don’t often say these kinds of things out loud. In fact, we often don’t know they are there at all, because they operate as a inner dialogue that we have with ourselves during the day, rather than in actual conversation with other people.
• You shall know your ‘shoulds’ •
What are your ‘shoulds?’
Your ‘shoulds’ are the things you feel you must do. They are the criticisms you (or people you know) make about your attitudes and behaviour.
Often we have no idea where they come from, and never even question their validity. They rarely generate positive action and their negativity drains us of motivation and energy. But yet they drive much of what we do.
Let me share an example.
I don’t know how many times I’ve not been feeling well, but pushed myself to attend an event because I felt I ‘should’ go. And I don’t know how many times by doing so I’ve not only not enjoyed the night, but made my sickness worse in the process.
What made me push myself to go? When I really got down to it, this was my thinking behind the ‘should:’
‘I should attend that event, because if I don’t go, I’ll let people down and they will think I’m unreliable.’
Really? Would they? Or would they understand that illness is not something we could have predicted? Does it really matter what they think as long as your own integrity is intact?
• Your ‘coulds’ will set you free! •
Let me suggest something a bit radical. What would happen if I tried replacing some of my ‘shoulds’ with ‘coulds?’
I could attend that event, because it would make my friends happy, or I could
leave it tonight, because I’m exhausted and not feeling well.
When I frame it like that, it makes better sense not to go, doesn’t it?
‘I could’ is so much more empowering than ‘I should,’ because it emphasises the pros and cons of a choice rather than the guilt that accompanies a sense of real or imagined unfulfilled obligation.
In other words, while ‘should’ doesn’t allow me to make mistakes, ‘could’ helps me to understand that I am human.
• How to break free from your ‘shoulds’ •
1. Each time you realise you are being hard on yourself, write down the ‘should’ statement behind it.
2. Ask yourself, ‘Who says?’ What great authority says I should do this thing? And why? What evidence supports it and what doesn’t? If your ‘should’ is rooted in Truth (which for Christians, we find in the Bible) then absolutely go for it. If it’s not, it needs to go!
3. Rewrite your ‘should’ sentence with the world ‘could’ and see what options open to to you.
4. Choose any ‘coulds’ actually worth taking action on – then replace them with ‘I wills’. Positive actions at the ready!
You won’t believe the clarity and freedom this will bring you. I’ve been practising over the last few months and seen the difference already.
A life of ‘shoulds’ is full of clouds but a life of coulds is full of clear blue skies.
You shall know your ‘shoulds,’ and your ‘coulds’ will set you free. Try it and see!