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The Problem With The Word “Should”

As we go through our days, we can have tens of thousands of thoughts. Sometimes they’re helpful, encouraging and motivating, but it’s also really common for them to be critical or unhelpful. Some of these unhelpful thoughts will likely contain the word should; unwritten rules that we set for ourselves about what we should be, do or want.

To give an example, lately, I’ve been telling myself that I should get up at 6 am to exercise. Without fail, my alarm goes off, I grumble about how I should get out of bed, but instead I turn the alarm off and go back to sleep. The trouble with “should” statements is that they’re often judgemental and setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves. What I’m really saying when I tell myself that I should do something is that I’m not; “I should get up and exercise at 6 am…but I’m not”. This leaves me feeling guilty and at times, anxious.

The other problem with the word should is that it can keep us stuck in our problem. Let’s say somebody went for a job interview and it didn’t go well. They might keep replaying that interview again and again in their head to come up with the way they feel it should have happened. This can stop them from accepting the situation for what it is and being able to move on from it.

How to Move Past the “Should”?

So how do we drop the should? First, we need to be aware of it and acknowledge it. Telling yourself not to think the word should, would be like me telling you not to think of a pink elephant. All you can think of is a pink elephant, right?

Instead of banning yourself from thinking should, I invite you to start to gently observe when it pops up in your thoughts. Maybe it’s you telling yourself you shouldn’t feel a certain way or that you should be more organised. Perhaps you keep telling yourself that things should be different when they’re not going your way. Once you have recognised those thoughts, you can decide whether they are worth listening to or not.

As a rule of thumb, it can be useful to consider whether your ‘should’ is within your control. If it isn’t, this can be a good indication that we need to accept the situation for what it is so that we can move forward. For example, we don’t have control over other people’s behaviour.

You might find it useful to label those thoughts as they come up, such as “I’m telling myself should”, and return to something present such as the breath or whatever activity that you were doing before the thoughts of “should” disrupted you.

Set Realistic Goals & Drop the Judgement.

Sometimes the judgement that comes with our ‘shoulds’ means we quit before we even get started. It maintains the idea that if we can’t do it perfectly, then why even bother? If this is the case, then our goals may be too big or too unrealistic.

It can be useful to narrow the goal down into smaller, more achievable steps and gradually build on it. To use exercise again as an example, rather than expecting myself to exercise every day, I set myself the goal of exercising twice a week and gradually build on that.

Undoubtedly, there have been weeks when this hasn’t happened because I’m a working mum and life gets in the way. Instead of beating myself up about it and going back to my ‘should’, I aim for progress, not perfection.

I might do a quick 10-minute workout rather than a half-hour or practice self-compassion, reminding myself that I’m human and I’ll try again tomorrow.

“When you find yourself in the habit of telling yourself ‘should’, try practising self-compassion”

Moving forward and Re-framing the “Should.”

So, some quick tips on how to re-frame the word should and how it can help change your mindset.

  • It can be useful to swap the “should” for “could” or “would like to”. If you’re someone who keeps telling yourself that you should be more organised, thinking “I would like to be more organised” allows you to set some realistic goals around organisation rather than expecting that you should already have that skill.

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  • Remember that you can’t control what others say or do, so try and let go of the past rather than slipping into the mindset of “they shouldn’t have done that” or “I should have said this”. By doing this, you are living in the past, and by letting it go, you will alleviate a lot of resentment, guilt or regret from your thoughts and emotions.
  • If your ‘should’ is within your control, set specific and realistic goals to create change. If you would like to be more organised, consider what small steps you can make to work towards that. If you keep putting it off and finding it overwhelming, the goal may need to be even smaller and have a time frame.
  • When you find yourself in the habit of telling yourself ‘should’, try practising self-compassion. When you notice yourself thinking you ‘should’ do, be or want something, consider what you would tell a close friend in the same situation. Speaking to yourself with the same kindness and compassion can help alleviate guilt and provide an opportunity to reassess your goals. 

Elicia Clarke is a Psychologist and Freelance Writer. You can follow her on Instagram via @thepawsativeproject

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