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The Self-Defeating Should

One usually cannot go through a day without saying to oneself, to another or hearing from another the word "should" (or its variations: must, ought, mustn't, shouldn't, oughtn't) several times, at least. These "shoulds" are imprinted in our minds and limit our choices and happiness.

These are just a few of the ways people use the word "should" and its variations:

1. I should be studying (very popular among students of all ages).
2. I should have called ....... (you fill in the blank).
3. I should be making more money.
4. I should love my husband/wife.
5. That's not fair (it should be).
6. You really ought to get the house painted.
7. I (you) should be a better (more competent, etc) person.
8. You (I) should have taken out the garbage.
9. You shouldn't run in the house.
10. I (you) shouldn't be so negative.

In each of the above examples, the word "should" is used or implied in a way that suggests several things. First, each of the statements has some basis in reality. The garbage most likely did need to be taken out and the listener probably agreed to perform that task. Second, each of the statements is usually used when the listener did not perform the task as agreed (did not take out the garbage). Third, the implication of the statement is that by not doing the agreed task the listener is bad.

These kinds of statements are generally used to get someone (frequently ourselves) to do something. "You should have taken out the garbage" really means "I want the garbage out of here and you agreed to take the responsibility for that task!" By using the word "should" we put the listener at a disadvantage. We do this by getting him/her to focus on the possibility that he/she is a bad person and not on the fact that we are telling him/her what to do. If all goes well the listener will not question our motives for making the statement, will feel embarrassed (bad) enough to think about his or her areas of responsibility, and finally, take out the garbage.

Incidentally, we learn at a very young age to associate bad feelings with the word 'should.' Most every kid has heard his/her parent saying that he/she should have done or not done something in particular. It is extremely unusual for the parent to express something like that without either stating or implying that the kid is bad. We learn that when we do something that we "shouldn't" do we are bad -- and -- when we do not do things we "should" we are also bad. We learn this so well that we are able to elicit the same emotional response from ourselves and others when we use the word should, as our parents did when we were kids.

We also learn to use the word "should" in another strange way. We say things like "I should be studying" when we are at a football game (essentially impossible to study at a football game). We get (a) to feel bad about not studying (a just punishment), (b) to not study (that's O.K. because we have been punished for our transgression), and (c) to stay at the game. However, we do not tend to enjoy the game as thoroughly as we might if we hadn't gone through the punishment chain. Feeling bad kind of justifies our behavior when it doesn't seem to be goal productive.

To avoid the bad feelings associated with the word should, see if you can substitute one of several other words (might, could) that imply choice. Example: "I should take out the garbage" may become "I could take out the garbage" or "It might be a good idea to take out the garbage." If you substitute other more empowering words in place of "should" in your thoughts, you will probably cut out a large portion of the bad feelings you experience daily.

If you are saying "I should have washed the car," finish the statement with something realistic - like "and I didn't" - rather than moralistic, like "and I am bad for not doing what I promised". Then ask yourself if you really want the car washed, and if so, do you really want to wash it now rather than doing some other activity. This gives you the opportunity to become clear about tasks, establish priorities and make choices about your behavior.

A similar statement works when dealing with other people as well. Instead of "You should take out the garbage" try "The garbage pile is very large, will you take it out, please?" The person may say no but will probably add the reasoning behind his/her decision to say no ("No! I'm in the bathroom now."). You then have a choice - take out the garbage yourself if that is your highest priority or wait to ask someone else to perform the task.

Beware of others who "should" you. Before you respond, ask yourself if you really want to do what they are "shoulding" and make an active choice. When talking with others, avoid "shoulds." Explain what you want and ask their cooperation.


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