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Banish "should"

I have a problem with the word “should”. It appears way too much in my vocabulary. And this word is so laden. Laden with expectations, with judgement, with criticism. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines should as:

used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions

Alarmingly, the online dictionary notes “should” as being one of the 1000 most commonly used words!

Here are some of the sentences I have stuck on repeat on my internal thoughts playlist:

  • I should cut down on sugar

  • I should call Mum

  • I should practice yoga today

  • I should blog more

  • I should stop mindlessly scrolling on this device

  • I should eat more fruit and vegetables

  • I should be able to do arm balances

  • I should get a better paid job

  • I should go to bed earlier

  • I should get up earlier

  • I should become a vegetarian

  • I should read more

  • I should be more compassionate

  • I should be kinder to myself

Now some of these are perfectly valid things to do or be, or at least to set an intention for. But by prefacing these things with I should, we are framing it in a way that just sets us up for disappointment in ourselves. Saying “I should do x” and then not doing x – whether for a perfectly good reason or not – leaves us feeling critical of ourselves. “I should have done that, but I didn’t, because I am lazy/slack/incompetent/afraid/forgetful/a failure/insert other self-directed criticism”. Sound familiar to you too?

And what about this one? “I know I should, but…” Whose judgement is underlying this? Who says you should? And if there’s a but, it sounds to me like you have a reason not to. So own that reason. Maybe you have decided that it isn’t a high enough priority right now. And on the flip side, if your reason is really just an excuse to avoid doing something you don’t want to do, perhaps you should be enquiring about why you don’t want to do it. Are you holding yourself back due to fear of failure? Feelings of not being good enough? Lacking in self-belief that you can? Well if any of those things ring true, telling yourself “I should” isn’t going to help. Instead, frame it as either “I am going to…” or “I am not going to…”, but drop the “I should”.

“Should” is just as harmful when directed at someone else. I am also really guilty of this. “You/he/she/they should” (or “should not”) is loaded with your personal judgement. An opinion - based on your beliefs, experience, personality - on how someone else should behave, think, or feel. When has it ever helped you to be on the receiving end to hear “You should…” Doesn’t that instantly make you feel judged? Criticized? Put down?

If you really must advise someone (as in, they asked for your advice), then it’s so much more helpful to frame things as “Perhaps you might consider….” Or “You might like to….” Or “As an idea, you could….” All of these sound much more like helpful suggestions to take or leave and not a directive from a superior and wiser person that you could never live up to being.

So, next time you catch yourself using the word should, take a moment to sit back and assess the loaded judgements implicit in the directive. And try reframing, because the language we use and its impact on ourselves and others is powerful and potentially harming.

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