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Listening to Ourselves: Don’t Should on Me and 
I Won’t Should on You  

by Rebecca Shafir

The word "should" is probably better than any other word in the English language for creating anxiety. When we tell ourselves we "should" do something it carries great authority. "Should" makes any sentence sound like it came straight from the mouth of God. Some close relatives of should are "ought to," "have to," "need to," "got to," and "must." Can you feel the pressure and stress in those words?

We might tell ourselves we "should" be less anxious about going to an interview. But we know we do feel anxious. So the message we are giving ourselves is that we shouldn't feel the way we are feeling. This in turn makes us feel that we are somehow "wrong" or "bad" which produces even more anxiety.

Even something simple like "I should clean up my room" can create anxiety. On one side is this authority figure telling us what we should do; on the other side is our emotional self saying "But I don't feel like it." We get caught in the middle of this anxiety-producing conflict between shoulds and feelings. As one of my clients put it, "The problem with inner conflict is that, no matter which side wins, I always end up losing." 

Here are some common should sentences. Most of the time this Inner Talk is directed at us, but it can also be directed at others.

I have to go do it right now.

You shouldn't feel that way.

I must be thriftier.

You should be able to do better than that.

If you are a good parent you should always love taking care of your children.

I have to call my mother tonight.

I've got to make more money.

He really should be more considerate.

What's the problem with "shoulds?” Aren't there things we "should" do? What would happen if we stopped telling ourselves all day long that we "should/must/ought to/have to/got to" do things? Would we all become lazy, irresponsible bums? "Should" Inner Talk is an attempt to influence behavior by guilt and higher authority. It has been a favorite of parents for generations. "Why do I have to I clean my room?" "Because I said you should!"

Is there a better way to motivate yourself (and other people) than using "shouldisms?" Definitely. First of all, shoulds don't really work that well. Shoulds creates inner conflict and resistance. Shoulds take away enjoyment and autonomy. Next time you start to say "should" to yourself, try substituting "could," "want to," "prefer," "might," "like to" and similar words. These are very liberating words if you have been subjecting yourself to shouldisms. 

As you change your Inner Talk you will find yourself feeling more empowered, more in charge of your life. This process will help you examine your underlying assumptions and see if they really reflect your true beliefs and values. Here are some transformations of shouldisms and the clarification process that may follow. 

I have to do it right now. 
I could do it right now.

Do I want to do it now? What would be the consequences of doing it now versus doing it later? 

I must be thriftier. 
I want to be thriftier.

Do I really want to? What do I mean by thrifty, anyway? I don't like the word "thrifty"! It reminds me of my mother always buying the cheapest things. I don't want to deny myself things I really want or need. But I guess I do want to save more money. I'm really tired of living on the edge; it creates so much anxiety every month. I'll change that Inner Talk to: "I want to be spending less and save more so I can feel more secure." 

I should be able to do better than that. 
I could do better than that.

Yes, I could. But in this particular situation it's really not worth the extra effort to me. This is good enough. Everything I do doesn't have to be perfect. 

I have to call my mother tonight. 
I want to call my mother tonight. 

Sometimes I don't feel like calling her, but I do it anyway to avoid feeling guilty. When I call her out of guilt, I don't feel very good afterwards. Before I decide whether or not to call her, I want to take a few minutes to get in touch with what I'm really feeling right now. 

He really should be more considerate. 
I would prefer it if he were more considerate.

Yes, I would prefer to be treated more considerately. But he is who he is. Is there anything I could do differently to get my needs met more effectively in this relationship? Can I accept him being the way he is and not take it personally? What other options do I have? 

Avoid shouldisms if you want to be a happy camper. And remember, instead of saying, "I should never say should," say, "I want to practice Creative Inner Talk"! 


 

 


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