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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Grossman

Why to let go of the word "should"

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

'Should' is a fraught word, one that often leads to unintended harm. Here is an exploration of that word, its impact, and ways we can work with other language that is healthier.

So why is this conversation important? When we 'should' on ourselves or each other, we are engaging in a kind of fantasy, usually shame based, where we live in the 'woulda coulda shoulda' realm instead of what actually is. When we 'should' on ourselves we are often implying that we are not enough as we are, that we ought to be somewhere or someone else. The problem with this is there is no way to get from the shame fantasy to the desired outcome. It is usually very easy to compare and despair, but incredibly taxing on our sense of self-worth. However, if we accept the reality of things, we can make measured steps toward our goal.

Example: "I shouldn't have yelled at you like that". The intention is good, it is a way of expressing remorse, but it doesn't actually do anything to fix the harm or prevent it from happening in the future. The fact is you did yell, you are experiencing guilt, and in response to that discomfort you are living in a fantasy of how things would feel if you hadn't done the harmful thing.

Alternate: "I am so sorry that I yelled at you earlier; you don't deserve that kind of treatment. I am committed to taking breaks earlier, practicing self-regulation, and letting you know when I've hit the red zone. I imagine you are probably in pain. What do you need from me right now?" The benefits of this are that we are owning our impact (regardless of intent), not dismissing our behavior or our partner's reaction, and offering concrete steps toward not repeating that harm going forward. We also create space for our partner to feel hurt, disappointed, and in need of care.

Example: "Ugh, I feel gross - I should work out more." Depending on who you are, this may hit in different ways. There is an implication that we do not like our body and that if we just did this thing we would be better/feel differently. Where there are parts of that statement that may be true, we are still living in the fantasy of who we aren't, and what we aren't doing. The fact (in this hypothetical example) is that we don't feel good and we are mentally comparing ourselves to a version of ourselves that doesn't yet exist.

Alternate: "I don't like the way I'm feeling and I would like to work out more." The change is simple but very powerful as it changes the locus of control. You are taking responsibility for the impetus to work out rather than this force being generated by society, media, family, etc. You are not bypassing the discomfort you are feeling by pretending you are okay, but instead you are expressing a desire to take responsibility for feeling better.

Example: "You should have known better." Clearly, they either didn't know better or didn't care. Option one means that they need some education around how to love you in ways that feel good for you, and the other means that you should get out of that relationship and find someone that practices empathy and respect. Punishing ignorance just leads to shame. Ignoring apathy is often dangerous.

Alternate: "It really didn't feel good for me when you did (X); are you willing to learn more about why that hurt and what you can do instead?" In this version you are giving the benefit of the doubt, trusting them to step up, and also allowing them to have a clear no. If their answer is no, that is a thing to be explored with curiosity; it's possible they have a really good reason for declining that particular strategy but are interested in offering a different strategy for meeting your need, or it's possible that they are showing their lack of care for you, in which case you need to believe them and protect yourself.

Your turn:

Make a list of 'should's. Let's start out with three each: one should for yourself, one should for your partner or a loved one, and one should for the world.

This 'should' is according to whom? Where did you learn it? Are there ways it has helped you? Are there ways it has harmed you?

Try to generate some alternates to the 'should's that you named. How can we work with these from a place of acceptance and responsibility instead of a place of shame or dismissal?

Share what it is like when you receive a 'should' from yourself or someone you care about. Imagine what it would be like if you had a healthy alternate.

As always, please let me know if there is anything I can do to help support you in this exploration.


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