Monthly Archives: September 2015

Re-Thinking Shoulds


What did you think of when you read that word? How did it make you feel? Before you read on, jot down the “shoulds” that popped into your mind.

Most of us can generate a long list of “shoulds” and most of the time, the list makes us feel guilty or inadequate. For many years, I have asked students to record the “shoulds” that they say to themselves, to others, or that they hear from others and then reflect on the experience. Here is a sample of some of the “shoulds” I have heard:

  • I should be more organized
  • I should get a car
  • I should help out more
  • I should be slimmer
  • I should have more money in my bank account
  • I should be nicer
  • I should exercise
  • I should answer my emails
  • You should listen to mommy
  • You should go to college
  • You should major in business
  • You should break up with him/her
  • You should try online dating
  • You should stop being so anxious
  • You should stop smoking
  • I should not eat so much candy
  • You should quit your job and find a new one

The opportunity to view the “shoulds” all at once allow us to see the impact they have on us. Many times the “shoulds” we tell ourselves represent regret for past actions. We are disappointed in the choices we have made or how we have treated others. We are using today’s information to evaluate the appropriateness of yesterday’s decisions. Rather than reflecting on how those past decisions were lessons learned, lessons that have helped us become this better person who is sorry for how we once acted, we focus on the regret.

This often leads to the next impact of “shoulds,” they often lead to self-deprecation. We begin to look at how “bad” or “useless” we are, how much worse we are than other people. When we say “I should be slimmer” we are criticizing who we are and how we look. We are not focusing on what might make us happier (like feeling healthier), we are focusing on what is wrong with us. We are often so much harder on ourselves than we are at others. If someone else exercises for ten minutes we encourage them and praise them; when we do it, the criticism often kicks in and the “I should have done more” comments discourage our efforts. Very often “shoulds” cause guilt and discouragement, not necessarily productive action. Rather than acting as a red flag that tells us change is needed, it acts as a way of keeping us stagnant.

To understand the importance of this, we need a bit of background on Humanistic psychology (Carl Rogers). Humanists contend that “shoulds” signify the incongruity between our real selves (who we truly are) and our idealized selves (who we think we need to be in order to be loved). “Should”, in essence, represents conditions of our worth. We think we “should” do more/less/different things in order to be loved by others. If we were thinner, smarter, taller, funnier, then we would be more popular.

This brings me to the second part of the assignment that I give to my students. I ask them to change the word “should” to “need” or “want” and reflect if it makes any difference in how they feel. Review your own should list and give it a try yourself before you continue reading.

When we change the phrase from “I should be more organized” to “I want to be more organized” the focus shifts slightly to a consideration of an action that must be taken in order to accomplish this. If the phrase is “I need to be more organized” the motivation becomes more internalized. The word “want” changes the way the task is viewed and how it is prioritized. The word “need” requires us to answer the question “why?” – “Why do I need to?” Sometimes that eliminates an item from our list, sometimes it increases our sense of purpose and urgency and intensifies the desire to do something about it. The result is more likely to be an action than a feeling of guilt or discouragement. The focus is back on our real self, the person we are – the person who wants to improve in some area – not because we are unlovable as we are but because we will be happier with this change in our behavior. It is a change in what we do, not who we are.

If we consider the “shoulds” we hear from others, it becomes evident that we often hear these as considerations of our worth, of what we need to do/improve upon/change in order to be loved. “You should listen to mommy/daddy/me (your friend or lover).” We hear “You should take my advice because I’m smarter/more experienced/more logical than you are.” We hear only what is wrong with us and we usually, again, feel discouragement. Sometimes we feel sadness. Sometimes it is anger.

If we consider, instead, what the statement means to the other person – what it means about their ideal self – it sounds very different. Now it would sound like “An ideal mom has children who listen so please listen.” If the statement is “You should go to college” the person may be saying “If I were an ideal parent, I would have gone to college and been able to provide more while working less.” If we hear the communication this way, our response to them might be very different. We might respond to the latter statement with, “I don’t want to go to college now, but I really appreciate that you are looking out for my best interest. I know you worked hard to give me all you have given me and I appreciate it. So, I will go to college when I am ready to take full advantage of what it has to offer.”

I have had many students tell me that this assignment has really changed their perspective. It has helped them accomplish things on their list rather than talking about it or worrying about it or feeling bad about it. I have had others say it has caused them to change their list. I had one student say that when she changed what she said to her brother (from “I really should see your kids more” to “I want to see your kids more”), it completely changed her relationship with him. He told her he had always assumed she didn’t really want to visit, but felt obliged to visit. When she said she wanted to visit, he asked what was stopping her and how he could help her overcome those obstacles. Big changes from small changes.

Maybe you should give it a try.

Wait, what I meant to say was, “I want you to try” or maybe “An ideal psychologist would have been able to convince you to give it a try.”

Should. I hope you will never hear it the same way again.