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Why the Word “Should” Can be Harmful and 3 Empowering Alternatives

Self-Blame

“To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are.” ~Sven Goran Eriksson

How many times a day do you use the word “should” in reference to yourself or other people? I don’t know about you, but I used to use it a lot.

The word “should” has become a fixture in our everyday dialogue. We use it in conversation with others, as a way of motivating ourselves or keeping ourselves in check, and to express a myriad of feelings, including frustration, guilt, and regret.

As I’ve become more interested in my internal dialogue and how it affects the way I feel about myself, show up in the world, and live my life, I’ve started to realize just how insidious the word “should” can be.

Although I used to “should” myself about a variety of things, many times each day, I realized that telling myself I should be doing more or being more wasn’t actually helping me do more or be more, and it left me feeling like I wasn’t not enough as I was.

Equally, I realized that when I told other people they should or shouldn’t do something, I wasn’t respecting their ability to make the best decisions for themselves. That didn’t fit with my personal philosophy (that people are free to do what they want as long as they’re not harming others), and I knew I wasn’t being the best friend or partner while I was using “should”-based vocabulary.

Since I had these realizations, I’ve been on a quest to replace my “should” with alternative vocabulary that is healthier and more accepting—both of myself and of other people. The longer I’m on this quest, the more I realize the damage the word “should” does to our self-relationship and our relationships with others. Here is what I’ve discovered so far:

Two Major Problems with Using the Word “Should”

When we use the word “should,” we’re not accepting reality. We’re talking about things that we wish were so, but aren’t (or vice versa). Whenever I used the word “should” when talking to myself, it was motivated by a lack of self-acceptance rather than encouragement.

As Dr. Shad Helmstetter explains in his book What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, when we tell ourselves that we “should” be doing something, we’re implicitly reinforcing the idea that we’re not doing it.

If we say to ourselves “I should really meditate more often,” the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is “…but I don’t.

Equally, if we say, “I should really be exercising this morning,” the unspoken ending to that sentence is “…but I’m not.”

In the long-term, when we tell ourselves or other people that we should or they should be doing something (as well-meaning as we might be), we’re reinforcing the negative, and the fact that we or they are not doing it.

Alternatives to “Should”

I won’t pretend that removing the world “should” from my vocabulary has been easy, or that I’ve arrived and currently inhabit a “should”-free existence. I used to use the word “should” a lot and, in truth, I think it’s something I’ll have to keep an eye on for the rest of my life.

For now, however, I’ve found some alternatives helpful in overcoming my habit of “should”-ing myself and other people.

1. Focus on the benefits.

Instead of telling myself I “should” be doing more of something, I try to focus on why I want to do that particular thing.

Instead of saying “I should do more yoga,” I remind myself of why I want to do this: “I feel great when I do yoga a few times each week,” “I enjoy feeling myself relax and stretch out when I do yoga,” or “I feel a greater sense of self-connection when I make time to connect my body and my breathing in yoga.”

2. Focus on how the activity fits with your values.

One of the biggest things I used to “should” myself about was being on time. I struggled to turn up on time for work, appointments, meeting up with friends, and pretty much anything that was due to start at a set time. It was a constant battle with myself and, of course, telling myself “You should be on time” or “You shouldn’t be late” did nothing to change my tardiness.

Instead, I started reframing this from the perspective of my values. I started telling myself “It’s really important to me to be on time,” or “I want to live with integrity and do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it.”

3. Focus on accepting and exploring reality.

I used to think that I shouldn’t feel angry or jealous. I had heard they were “unhealthy” feelings to experience and had the belief that there was something wrong with me for feeling that way. No matter how much I told myself that I shouldn’t feel these things, however, they didn’t go away.

Now, I focus on accepting my experience. Instead of telling myself “I shouldn’t be feeling/thinking _____,” I take a step back and say “Okay, I’m feeling/thinking _____. I wonder why that’s happening now?”

Removing the word “should” from your vocabulary will take time, patience, and practice. But it is possible, and it comes with great rewards. Replacing “should” with more helpful dialogue will lead to a kinder relationship with yourself, and better relationships with the people around you too.

Photo by Hartwig HKD

About Hannah Braime

Hannah Braime is a coach and writer who believes the world is a richer place when we have the courage to be fully self-expressed. She shares practical psychology-based articles, tools and resources on living a full and meaningful life over at Becoming Who You Are. Get free access to workbooks, audios and much more when you join the community.

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  • Nicole Liloia

    Great article! I love the reframes that you did with “should,” which is a word I use way too often!

  • This is a really powerful read. I myself use the word “should”
    in my life. “I should be going to school more.” “I should be at this point in
    my life.” “I should feel this way, but I don’t” … etc. It’s interesting how
    using this word is also a form of denial to the reality of things. When I say
    to myself that I should or someone else should, I’m not only seeing the
    negativity of what I am not doing but I am also in a state of certain denial
    especially with feelings. Because when I tell myself I “should” be feeling this
    or that, it’s like a part of me is pushing away what I really am feeling—not wanting
    it to be the reality. Thank you for sharing this with us. It really has got me
    thinking now about my own internal dialogue.

  • Talya Price

    Great Article. We are all where we need to be right now. Thanks for this.

  • Excellent

  • Guru Kelly

    Wow powerful and enlighting. It time to live in a “should” free world and while we are at it let throw in “can’t”, another word that should be examined.

  • Fiona

    Really insightful article – thank you so much!

  • Hi Guru Kelly, that’s a great point! “Can’t” is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Thanks Fiona 🙂

  • Thank you Aminda 🙂

  • My pleasure Talya! There’s so much pressure to change and be more than we currently are, I find it helpful to remind myself of that sometimes.

  • Hi Mariel, thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear the article resonated with you and has got you thinking about your own internal dialogue. All parts of our internal dialogue have a purpose and are trying to protect us in their own way (even if that way doesn’t seem very helpful). Every feeling comes up for a reason. When we understand that, we have an amazingly wise internal resource to tap into 🙂

  • Thanks Nicole! I hope they’re helpful 🙂

  • Bill Hamer

    I’ve learned to replace the word “should” with “could” as “could” implies that we have a choice. We ALWAYS have a choice. If it’s a direction we are choosing to take in our lives and we aren’t following through, then we can ask ourselves (in a non-critical, fact-finding and supportive way) “so why aren’t you?” THEN we the opportunity to discover one of our “blocks” and hence the opportunity to overcome it/them and grow.

  • Caryn Spriggs

    Fantastic article that really resonated with me … thank you. I am trying to cut down my use of the word “should” and I have made the discovery that it is also helping me take control, feel less guilty, accept responsibility and accept the decisions I make in my life. For example in the past where I may have said “I should spend this morning cleaning out the cupboards” and I change the dialogue to “I could spend this morning cleaning out the cupboards but I choose not to” I am removing guilt from the situation, am accepting that my choice will have consequences (untidy cupboards) and I am able to look at a situation and examine why I don’t do a task that would have been preceded in the past by “should”.

  • Just A. Guy

    I’ve been on a quiet campaign to have this word eliminated from every day use- welcome to the struggle. “Never let anyone should on you!!”

  • vinnie

    I myself give thanks and appreciation for the information you have share.

  • Joy & Cake

    I too have tried to remove “should” from my vocabulary. I find when I am using “should” it is based on fear and replacing it with “could” is focused on what I love.

    I wrote a post about it a while back! http://joyandcakewisdom.blogspot.com/2013/05/do-you-really-know-what-you-want-to-do.html

  • Great tips Bill, thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Yes, using “could” also puts the emphasis back on personal choice, which I love!

  • Yes… it is a very common word! I’m hoping that the more we as individuals start replacing it in our personal vocabulary, the more the trend will catch on 🙂

  • Hi Caryn! What you wrote is so true; it’s funny how changing just one letter reframes the whole experience. Good for you and I wish you luck as you explore alternatives to “should” 🙂

  • Laura Stefankiewicz

    What a wonderful piece! A few years ago after listening closely to my own inner dialogue I too discovered how harmful the word “should” was to my inner peace. Since then it has been removed my vocabulary and the vocabulary of those close to me. I believe that using “should” takes away my power and forces me to try to meet someone else’s standards, igniting judgements and negativity. I have been a supporter of a “should”-free world and it’s great to find like-minded individuals!

  • Jason Holborn

    Well, I have mostly overall removed “but” from my vocabulary and I feel good about having done so today. I do believe I will try to work on “should” next, having read this thought-provoking post. Thank you.

  • Thanks so much for this article. I have been wondering how to reframe this in my mind, and like a lot of people have decided to just change the wording around a bit. I really like tho your tips about changing how you’re thinking about these things. It helps me to consider: are they really important to me? (like your question of looking at the benefits and living in integrity.) Sometimes I think I should on myself with things I don’t really even care about, but are just old thought patterns or beliefs. Great post. Thanks again 🙂

  • Ryan

    Hey Hannah, there’s another word that we should probably avoid as well; it’s the word “too”. I became conscious of this issue when I was learning Arabic in college, I asked the teacher how to say “I drank too much last night”, and she told me there was no equivalent way to express a quantity that implied that there was some magical perfect amount that I had gone over. According to her, the best translation is something like, “I drank a lot last night”.

    So since that time, I’ve tried to avoid saying things like “That shirt is too red.” or “This food is too hot.”

  • The Nihil

    Great article. I’ve often struggled with allowing other people to run my life, and “should” statements given by others used to control me. Now, I simply reply “which of the three major ethical theories mandate that I do that?”. As a nihilist/skeptic, there are no ethical mandates. Beyond that, something can only be done for a specific outcome. I should clean my room if I value my room being clean today above all other values.

  • Melanie

    I am developing a new habit of removing variations of the word “not” from my vocabulary: can’t/couldn’t, isn’t/wasn’t, don’t/didn’t, won’t/wouldn’t, etc. It’s quite the challenge! The benefit of doing so, I find, makes me mindful of my words and helps me more effectively articulate myself without the message being weighted down in negativity. I’m taking “should” on next! 😉

  • David G Stone

    Thanks for sharing 🙂 The power of language and the quality of questions we use and how it changes perspective and in turn forms our energy and existence is Amazing!! Being reflections of the creator “made in his image” this is the creative power we have..”freedom of choice” In essence exercising removing “should” is changing the filter of social conditioning to be better connected to the source. In my experience.

  • Moe-Goofie

    Should was a word I was guilt-ridden most of the time I owned a bakery. I was told what I should do, how I should do it and for whom I should accommodate. I was in an essence lied to by everyone who told me if I did the things I should they would support my endeavors (you should NEVER hire a gay person, you should ONLY make gluten-free items, you should MAKE items more to my personal liking, should, should, should) Eventually, I came to my senses and told these should-terrorists no. I used words like could, maybe, perhaps, absolutely not and also the words no thank you. People in our society today believe boundaries are not important enough to dictate to others what they should and shouldn’t do. That’s ludicrous. I believe when people are unhappy in their own lives they attempt to deflect it onto unsuspecting happy people who live should free.

    Thank you for your article, it was enlightening, refreshing and freeing.