There’s one little word that we use all the time and by doing so we make ourselves feel bad in so many ways. That word is ‘should’. You should do this, you should be that, you shouldn’t feel this. It’s laden with obligation, shame and an absence of choice, whether we use it in our self-talk or when someone uses the word in conversation with us.
In this episode we look at:
Podcast episode 14 The damaging word every overthinker uses
Welcome to Pressing Pause, the podcast for overthinkers.
I’m Gabrielle Treanor and I’m a writer and teacher specialising in overthinking and overworrying. Here I share with you ideas, inspiration and actions to empower you to spend less time overthinking and worrying and more time enjoying your life.
Welcome to episode 14 and in today’s episode we’re looking at a word, one little word, that we use all the time and by doing so we make ourselves feel bad in so many ways. Just as we do if someone directs the word at us. Now, I’m not about to swear, you don’t need to cover your children’s ears, and at first you may wonder what my problem with the word is. I shall explain all.
So, the damaging word every overthinker uses is ‘should’.
Think about when you use ‘should’ in a sentence. Is it when you think you could do something or you want to? Do you use ‘should’ when you’re making choices? Or do you use it when you’re thinking about what is expected of you, when you’re feeling obliged, duty-bound or when this is what you’re supposed to think, feel or do?
There’s so much in life that we apply the word ‘should’ to.
I should be able to do this.
I shouldn’t be so sensitive.
I should be different.
I shouldn’t be so pathetic.
I should be doing more.
I should be doing less.
I should get a grip.
I should be a better mum/daughter/partner/friend.
I should be tougher/kinder/funnier/thinner.
Ugh, just saying those should statements makes me feel stressed, put upon and like I’m failing at life and everything.
So, let me explain my issue with this word.
‘Should’ is laden with shame, obligation and an absence of choice. When we say we should or should not do something it’s usually because that’s what we think others expect of us, what society tells us or what we think we’re supposed to be feeling, thinking or doing in our lives. If it’s something we wanted for ourselves, if it was something we thought was a possibility, even if it’s really difficult, we’d use ‘want’ or ‘could’ in place of ‘should’.
Using ‘should’ takes our power out of the mix, we’re operating under pressure, we feel duty-bound, we don’t have a say in the matter. Eating more fruit and less cake because you should takes the choice out of it. However, tell yourself you could pick an apple over a cupcake and the power’s back in your hands. You are autonomous and if you choose fruit over cake it’s because you’ve made the decision for yourself, not because someone else expects it of you or that you feel shamed into doing it. And if you choose cake over apple, that’s your decision that you’re free to make!
Think about how it feels when someone tells you that you should do or be something. For a start there’s no asking, it’s telling. Should is most often used in statements, not questions. Even when it’s well meant, perhaps someone told you you should listen to this podcast, it doesn’t feel like a suggested option you could take or leave or that they were merely offering their opinion. Should is used as an instruction, this is what I think you should do, there’s little room for discussion, it’s a closed statement. You should read this book. You should try this new restaurant. You should have some fun. You should go here, you should be this, you should do that. Recall when you were last told you should do something, even if whoever said it was trying to be helpful, how did it make you feel? Imagine if they’d used could instead, how does that change the tone of what they said and your reaction to it? You could read this book, you could try this new restaurant, you could have some fun. Or you could not, the choice is yours, you don’t have to do any of it, including have fun if you don’t want to!
Sometimes we use should statements to ourselves when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable or low. We might use them as a verbal kick in the pants, a way to get us moving. But, if we’re already feeling stressed how is shaming ourselves into changing going to make us feel, how will it help? If you’re upset about something, telling yourself to get a grip doesn’t make you feel any better, it just criticises how you’re feeling and makes you feel worse. Giving yourself compassion, telling yourself that it’s okay to feel upset and that this is difficult, is much more comforting and gives you the space you need to manage what you’re dealing with. From this place of self-kindness you’re in a better position to move forward than if you have a tiny sergeant major on your shoulder yelling should at you.
Swapping out ‘should’ for ‘could’ can help show up a should statement’s failing. For example, change ‘I should be a better friend to ‘I could be a better friend. How odd does that sound? It’s as if you thought about whether you want to be a good friend today, or a lousy one, and you chose to be a rubbish friend! As if! Some days are challenging, some days are less so, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing your best on each of those days. Telling yourself you should be a better person may spur you into action of some sort but obligation and shame aren’t sustainable motivators.
Simply using the word ‘should’ in our everyday language has an impact on us. Messages we give ourselves like ‘I should get up earlier’, ‘I should finish this report before lunch’ or ‘I should go to the gym’, sound pretty harmless but we’re drip-feeding ourselves oppression. By saying you should get up earlier or finish the report or go to the gym you’re telling yourself that it’s not your choice, you have to do these things because of some external pressure. This may be true to some extent in some circumstances – your boss wants the report – but these actions are not separate from you. You want to get the report done so that you can get it off your desk, crack on to the next task or take the afternoon off. You can think of all the reasons why it would benefit you to get up early, or you could choose to sleep for longer. It’s your decision if you go to the gym or not, whatever pressure you feel from elsewhere.
Change ‘should’ for ‘could’ or ‘want’ and you turn an onerous task you’re obliged to do into an action you choose to do. Listen to yourself talk, the language you use, and notice how it feels when you tell yourself you should do something compared to what it feels like when you say you could or want to do it.
The language we use every day feeds back to how we feel about what we’re doing and how we’re interacting in the world. By dropping ‘should’ from our sentences we replace the shame and obligation with possibilities, autonomy and choice.
Try it for yourself. Notice when you use the word ‘should’, swap it for ‘could’ and see how it feels. Let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear about it.
And if you ever hear me using the word ‘should’ feel free to point it out to me with the loudest foghorn you can find.
If you’d like to start meditating or had trouble getting into it in the past, take a look at my ecourse, Exhale, a beginners’ guide to meditation for overthinkers. You don’t have to empty your mind or sit still and we start with just three minutes. I’ve created this course to work for and with you so that you can create a meditation practice that blends into your life, empowers you to recognise when you’re getting lost in unhelpful thinking and calm your whirring mind. Go to gabrielletreanor.com/courses to find out more about Exhale, a beginners’ guide to meditation for overthinkers.
And you can find the show notes and other Pressing Pause episodes at gabrielletreanor.com/podcast. Thanks again for listening, until next time, lovely people.
Throughout this website and my work when I refer to women I include people identifying as women.
If you have, or think you may have, a mental health problem that requires professional diagnosis or treatment, please consult a mental health care professional and your GP.
You can also talk to the people at Mind on 0300 123 3393 or SANE on 0300 304 7000 or Samaritans on 116 123.
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