The word “should” is has surprising powers to sabotage mood and good intentions, but it can also be one of the pillars of a well-lived life. The issue is that there are two ways of using the word that seem very similar but that lead us in entirely different directions. One tends to create obstacles to getting things done and generates stress; the other use can help organize priorities.
By the way, in this article I’m talking about “should” in terms of obligation. There are different uses of the word, as Robin Dickinson has pointed out, and this article is about the two key meanings the word has for self-motivation.
“Should” as shorthand
The constructive version of should is shorthand for “if I want this benefit, then I’ll need to take this course of action.” With this version, there’s always a condition involved, and always an alternative. For instance, saying “I should plant my tomatoes next week” with the idea that doing so will give me the best possible crop of tomatoes is pretty constructive. I’m setting a goal for myself, and on some level I’m aware of what I want to accomplish. I could also choose not to plant my tomatoes next week, and probably not get as good a crop.
The harmful version either doesn’t have a condition, or it has a condition that’s isn’t based on our own priorities. For instance, saying “I should lose weight” can be actively harmful if the idea is that you’re a bad person if you don’t do it. So can “I should go this party” if the only reason for going to the party is that someone else thinks you should get out more (and you don’t agree), or if you feel a social obligation but have no real reason to want to participate.
This is not to say that there’s no such thing as a meaningful social obligation, only that doing things entirely for other people’s reasons is usually a recipe for trouble. We can (carefully!) take on other people’s goals as our own, for instance helping a spouse to train for a new job, spending time commiserating with a friend who’s lost a parent, or contributing to some wider social good through political action, volunteering, or just participating in our communities, and this can be positive as long as we’re doing it with full understanding of why we’re doing it. In fact, in some ways the ability to empathize with others and take on responsibility in a larger group is the a large part of being a mature adult. It’s just best to be sure we’re accepting responsibilities instead of feeling forced into them.
Good and bad “should” in the past
The use of “should” for things that have already happened is, if anything, even more likely to be a problem in the past than the present, because when we say things like “I shouldn’t have eaten that hamburger” or “I should have gone to class yesterday,” we’re much more likely to be beating ourselves up than to be planning different behavior for the future. It’s certainly possible to say “I should have gone to class yesterday” and mean “I can see that not going to class yesterday makes keeping up with the material harder, and so for the future I’ll make a special priority of getting to class every time,” but since reflections on the past rarely translate into plans for the future unless we go out of our way to make that happen, it’s much more effective to say (or think) that long, clumsy second version than to try to make the first one stand in for it.
“Should” for other people
The word “should” is just as messy when used on other people as it is when we use it on ourselves. Saying things like “he should watch where he’s going when he changes lanes!” or “my company should have paid for that” tends to put the focus on other people changing their behavior rather than on what we can do ourselves to respond constructively. Since we can’t control other drivers, it’s much more constructive to say “I guess I’ll watch out for unpredictable drivers like that guy” than to say “he should watch where he’s going,” or “In future, I’ll keep in mind that my company may not cover all the expenses I would expect them to” (or “I’ll go talk to my boss about this expense statement”) instead of “my company should have paid for that.”
The limited but real value of guilt and shame
The bad “should” actually does have a useful purpose in a limited way, in the same way that guilt and shame do: they bring our attention to a potential problem. If someone has done something that they know to be morally wrong and reflects “I shouldn’t have done that,” or feels guilt or shame, that’s positive to the point where it brings them to change their behavior and perhaps try to make reparations. Anything a “bad should” accomplishes beyond that role of pointing and reminding, however, is damaging.
Telling good “should” from bad “should”
Distinguishing between these two versions of “should” is tricky, because it comes down not to what we’re considering doing but to why we’re considering it. A “should statement” (the harmful version, the one without a meaningful condition) is one of the basic “broken ideas” (or “cognitive distortions”), and repairing this kind of idea means recasting it with a condition. A statement like “I should get my papers organized because I’m a slob,” (a should statement plus labeling: two broken ideas in one!) can be transformed into “If I like things around me to be in order, I’ll want to get my papers organized” or “If I want to boost how professional I look, I’ll organize my papers.” The original version of the statement tends to direct a person’s thoughts into their shortcomings and failures, which is a lousy way to get organized and not much fun, either. The transformed versions focus on the specific benefit or benefits you want to accomplish, and silently carries the other side of the condition, “And if I don’t, I just won’t get that benefit–which is not the end of the world.”
The benefit of getting a handle on shoulds
One potentially helpful approach, then, is to try to strike the word “should” out of our thinking completely. It’s harder to use bad “should” without using the actual word (though it can be done: “Politeness demands I go to the party tonight”), while good “should” statements are pretty easy to rephrase (“If I go to the party tonight, it will probably make my friends happy.”) But it’s not necessary to make this vocabulary change, since greater awareness can do the job just about as well.
The way we can apply this understanding of good and bad “shoulds” in our lives is to use it to notice bad “shoulds” as they come up in our mind, and then to think about applying conditions to them or examining them more closely. By doing things for reasons we recognize and agree with, we take greater control of and responsibility of our own lives rather than giving up power to circumstances or to outside forces. In this way we become a little more like the people we strive to be.
Photo by Brandon Cirillo