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How to Get Rid of the ‘Shoulds’

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD
July 30, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

The language we use can have powerful effects, and few words cause as much grief as “should.” How can a seemingly harmless six-letter word carry this kind of power?

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) we work to understand how our thoughts affect our emotions and our actions, so let’s explore the implications of using the word “should.”

Consider the following examples:

  • I should start meditating.
  • I should be more patient.
  • You should be more considerate.
  • Our baby should be asleep by now.
  • This driver should go faster.
  • People should be more careful.
  • I should have been promoted.
  • I should feel better by now.

As these examples illustrate, we usually mean that by some objective standard, someone needs to behave better. Accordingly, the Oxford Dictionary notes that “should” is used “typically when criticizing someone’s actions.” All this shoulding becomes a heavy weight as we continually judge reality against an imagined standard.

When we “should” against ourselves we imply that we’re doing something wrong, and end up feeling disappointed with ourselves for not measuring up in some way. Doing this habitually contributes to depression.

When we use “should” against others, we tell ourselves they’re failing to live up to a reasonable expectation. As a result we feel angry or resentful.

When we “should” against our circumstances, we feel frustrated and might think we’re getting a raw deal.

The truth is, these sorts of should statements rarely make sense. What’s the objective standard by which we’re evaluating ourselves and others? If we look closer we typically find that what we’re really stating are preferences. For example, “I would really like it if our baby were asleep right now.” That statement is a fact.

Does that mean she should be asleep? Of course not! That is, unless we’re omniscient. Otherwise, maybe it makes perfect sense that she’s awake. Perhaps we’re unaware of reasonable explanations for the way things are—maybe her sleep schedule is shifting, or her tummy hurts, or countless explanations we can’t imagine.

The alternative to resisting reality is acceptance. I don’t mean liking everything, but acknowledging that things aren’t the way we’d like them to be, period. It’s a lot less frustrating position than believing the universe is misaligned.

Framing our shoulds as preferences has the additional benefit of making it easier to work on them. For example, “I should start meditating” is at best a wish and quite possibly a criticism, whereas “I want to start meditating” expresses a desire we can act on. Similarly, “I would like it if you were more considerate” can start a discussion, whereas “You should be more considerate” will probably start an argument.

Now, obviously I’m not going to tell anyone they should stop saying “should,” and at times it’s a fairly neutral word (as in, “I should be home by 6:30”). But you might try changing your language for a few days. See what it feels like to get out from under the shoulds.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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