Why it’s time to swap out ‘should’

Why it’s time to swap out ‘should’

self talk, change should for could

There’s a word in the English language which I’m really not a fan of. No, it’s not a four-letter word, it’s simply the word ‘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 braver.
I shouldn’t be such a wuss.
I should be able to do this.
I shouldn’t be so sensitive.
I should be doing more.
I should eat more fruit and I should eat less cake.
I should push on through.
I should get a grip.
I should be a better mum/daughter/partner/friend.
I should be tougher/kinder/funnier/thinner.

Blimey, just reading those should statements makes me feel stressed, put upon and like I’m failing at all of it.

‘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 the world. 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 duress, 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, own that decision too!

We often use should statements when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable or low. We might use them in an attempt to get ourselves going over a difficulty, as a verbal kick in the pants. 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. 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.

One way to show up a should statement’s failing is to swap out ‘should’ for ‘could’. For example, change ‘I should be a better mum’ to ‘I could be a better mum’. How odd does that sound? It’s as if you thought about whether you want to be a good mum today, or a rubbish one, and you went with that! Some days are challenging, some days 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 with obligation and shame as your motivation, not because you’ve made the choice to.

Simply using the word ‘should’ in our everyday language has an impact on us. Messages we give ourselves like ‘I should go to bed early’, ‘I should finish this report by 12’ or ‘I should go to the gym’, sound harmless but we’re drip-feeding ourselves oppression. By saying you should go to bed early 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 go to bed early, or you could choose to stay up anyway. 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 or want 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.

I had a little battle with ‘should’ in the process of writing this blog post. I understand that you should post regularly on your blog so I should have written and posted this a couple of days ago. But a couple of days ago I felt terrible with a weird hay fever-flu type of combo that made it hard to breathe, my limbs ache and my head feel stuffed full of cotton wool. I told myself that I should get on and write the post because it’s on my to do list and I shouldn’t be so pathetic to not cope with hay fever and I should…

And that’s when I realised that I was giving in to the obligations and pressure that I put on myself that made no sense. Yes, I want to write the blog post but right then I couldn’t because my head was too fuzzy to think straight. Giving into the shoulds and making myself write would have resulted in a poorly-written version of this post that went against exactly what I’m writing about here! So, I swapped out the should and waited until I could think straight (and breathe properly, that helps). Whether I should have waited, whether I should have knuckled down and posted, is no longer relevant. I choose what I do and when I do it based on what I can do and want to do, not what I think I should do.

So, tell me, where do you find yourself using ‘should’? What messages are you giving yourself when you say you should feel or think or do and how can they be changed if you swap it for ‘could’ or ‘want’?

gabrielle april 2021
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  1. Jen Liminal Luminous on 29th July 2017 at 1:12 pm

    My husband keeps threatening to set up a ‘should’ swear box as I use it so much and he doesn’t think it’s a good think at all. Even just thinking of that helps a lot

    • Gabrielle on 30th July 2017 at 7:09 pm

      That could be a really great idea of your husband’s! Let me know if you try it 🙂

  2. Gabriella Buckingham on 8th August 2017 at 7:17 pm

    I love the idea of substituting should with could. It makes it more of a suggestion – a chance to think if we actually want to do something.

    Sometimes should really is about realising that you really do need to address an area in your life – like ” I should be a better wife or friend.. and I want to be, what can I do about that” but other things are often about comparison with others aren’t they. ” I should start employing staff or I should be more outgoing or I should eat less” If you say ” I could start employing staff.. I could be more outgoing.. I could eat less..” it sort of gives you a breather – to work out – could you and do you want to ? Or are you actually happy enough the way you are ? Perhaps you might come up with “I could see if someone wants to help me as and when..I could accept that I really love being alone reading but perhaps I’ll make a note to ring X tomorrow for a catch up… I could eat just as much food but try some different more healthy foods for a while. I hope I didn’t miss the point!
    Thanks Gabs – nice reminder 😉

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