The Problem with “Should” — and the Key to Bringing About Change

Christopher Witt —  January 7, 2013

Sometimes I think we’d all be better off if we stopped shoulding on ourselves. As in, “I shouldn’t have done that.” Or, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Or, “I should lose weight.” And, at the same time, we’d be happier if we stopped shoulding on each other.  As in, “You should be more careful.” Or, “You shouldn’t speak to customers like that.” Or, “You should have been more considerate.”

One of the greatest impediments to changing an undesirable behavior, a habit, or a situation is the word “should” and the sentiment it conveys. 

(“Should not” and “should have” are simply variations of “should” and are equally toxic.)

What good is “should”? What good does it do?

“Should” basically implies that whatever we’re currently doing, thinking, or feeling — when compared to some ideal of perfection — is wrong. It’s bad. It needs to (it should) change.

But “should” rarely does lead to change. It merely makes us aware of some inadequacy, and it does so in a way guaranteed to make us feel judged and belittled and, paradoxically, less inclined to change.

“Should” denies reality. Or, at least, it denigrates reality. But the only way to make a change, any kind of change, is first to acknowledge what is: what we’re actually feeling, thinking, or doing. Then, and only then, can we make a free and honest assessment of it, examine its causes and contributing factors, explore realistic and incremental ways to change it, and commit to making that change.

Telling myself, for example, “I should lose weight” has never helped me lose weight.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I tell myself, “You’re right, you should lose weight.” (This is a conversation I commonly have with myself every January 1. Maybe you do, too.)

Then I feel bad about having let myself gain weight in the first place. And I feel bad about not having lost it, even though I should have lost it over a year ago. And I think I should lose it right now or at least within the next two weeks, and I feel bad because I know I know won’t. So I’m right back where I started: not losing weight.

Imagine a different inner conversation, one that doesn’t involve “should.” Here’s how it might go.

“Over the past couple of years, I’ve gained twenty pounds. (Oh, all right, I’ve gained twenty-three pounds.) My pants — those that I can still fit into — are too tight. And I don’t want to buy a new wardrobe. I’m concerned about my blood pressure. I don’t like how I look or feel. I want to lose weight. I use eating (and drinking) as a way to cope with stress and to socialize. I already know what I can do (not what I should do) to lose that weight. I’ve done it in the past, and I know what works. I’ll start today, and I’ll accept the fact that I can’t lose all that weight in the next couple of weeks. A pound or two a week is doable, and it’ll get me to my goal by summer.”

Shoulding on yourself, on your life partner, or on your employees does more harm than good. If you want to make a change or to help others make a change, avoid should in all its forms.

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

One response to The Problem with “Should” — and the Key to Bringing About Change

  1. I’ve eliminated the word “should” from my vocabulary for over a year now, and in the process have discovered so many more effective ways of communicating with myself and others my wants, needs, thoughts, feelings… I always hated that phrase “You should give me your number.” Oh really? Should I? How about you ask? Instead of shouldn’t this or should that, I like being more direct and honest so your meaning isn’t always just left up to interpretation. “You should call me if you’re going to be late,” is almost offensive and most certainly left me guarded. I wished they had said, “I wish you would call if you’re going to be late,” or even a “please call me if you’re going to be late…” Heck, even go all the way and let me know how ya really feel, “you need to call me if you’re gonna be late!” At least then I know wow, I don’t like how necessary it is that I call, or (if its truly a concern or desire) wow, it really means a lot to them that I call… It makes people easier to interpret anyway. Lets stop shoulding all over the place, people. I despise the word.