Take a simple but life-changing action that will help you be happier starting today. Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary.
We received some wonderful listener feedback, which always makes our day:
In our last episode, Triggers & How to Cope, Sierra said she totally related to the trigger of making mistakes and shared her own travel horror story of booking a flight into one airport… and realizing too late that her connection was from the airport on the opposite side of the city. These mistakes are so painful, especially when they result in dealing with a huge inconvenience or fee. But it does help to hear that others have been there as well – and we’ve all survived.
Monica sent us a lovely email, saying that she loves hearing new episodes of the podcast and gets a lot out of the tips and recommendations.
She writes: “Thank you especially for allowing me to cut ‘should’ out of my vocabulary. My baby is 9 months old and a lot of things I would like to do don’t happen. Instead of feeling guilty about it, I just try to find space for it in smaller pieces or allow it to just patiently wait on one of my many lists (I do love me some lists!). I’m also learning to adjust my own feelings about what productivity means. It’s good self-work and I appreciate all the encouragement I get for this process from you guys. Keep it coming!”
Thank you to Sierra and Monica – and to everyone who has given us feedback on the podcast. It means so much to us, and we love to hear your stories. And Monica’s note is an excellent segue into today’s topic.
go to the gym.
get to work.
finish that project.
make plans with friends.
stop yelling at the kids.
read more books.
Our list of “shoulds” on any given day is a mile long.
Years ago, Melia read a book called Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten that recommended erasing the word “should” and its synonyms from your vocabulary, replacing them with words of intention and choice like “could,” and “will.”
Adopting this practice has truly made Melia happier. Gill didn’t realize how often she uses “should” until recently and is also working using alternatives.
So why is the word “should” so problematic? It’s because expectation, obligation and criticism are built into the word itself – so whether we’re using it on ourselves or others, “should” doesn’t usually lead to anything constructive.
Shoulds are unhelpful for three main reasons:
1. Shoulds get in the way of achieving our goals.
When you say you should do something, you’re criticizing yourself – even if it’s in a small or indirect way – for not doing what you feel obligated to do. And that can block you from actually making progress on things you want to do.
An article by a clinical therapist named Dr. Sophie Mort breaks it down in a helpful way. She writes that shoulds, “suggest that we don’t accept who or where we are. When we criticise and reject ourselves (even in such a subtle manner as when using the word should) we create anxiety and stress in our minds and bodies. Anxiety and stress shut down our brains’ ability to problem solve and to maintain attention to a new task.”
You might also find yourself rebelling against shoulds. They feel like assignments, not choices, even if you actually want to do them. And worse, when you do reach a goal, it doesn’t feel like something to celebrate as a win. It feels like meeting an obligation, doing a task that you should have done a long time ago. If you see yourself starting from a place of deficit, you’re just catching up to baseline instead of making progress.
2. The things we think we should do often don’t align with what we actually want.
When you are burdened by a mountain of shoulds, stop and ask yourself, “Where am I getting this idea?”
Often, we’re influenced by how our culture, media or others around us define how a successful person acts and looks. Once you realize this, you can consider: Do I agree that only people who look and behave a certain way are good enough and deserve good things? What is it that I actually want to do?
The goal of personal development is to become the best and most complete version of yourself – not to shape yourself to society’s or other people’s standards.
3. “When we use the word ‘should,’ we’re not accepting reality,” as writer Hanna Braime says. “We’re talking about things that we wish were so, but aren’t (or vice versa).” We’re not accepting ourselves, the people around us or the reality of our present situation.
Braime points out that when we tell ourselves that we should be doing something, we’re implicitly reinforcing the idea that we’re not doing it. She writes, “If we say to ourselves ‘I should really meditate more often,” the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is’ … but I don’t.”
You want to open yourself up to the possibility that you will do these things and are the kind of person who does these things. But only if you actually want to! If you don’t actually want to meditate, then release yourself from feeling like you should want to. “Should” results in unhealthy guilt and shame – and guess what? It’s totally made up. It doesn’t exist! Who decides what should happen?
As always, if you recognize this tendency in yourself, don’t beat yourself up. So many of us do. We’re a product of our culture and upbringing, and it takes time to adopt a different mindset and habits.
So what do you do instead?
First, just notice. Without judgment – no “I shouldn’t be saying should!” which I’ve totally said! — make a little mental note every time you hear yourself or other people saying “should” or its lookalikes: “need to,” “got to”, “have to,” or “supposed to.” When you start paying attention, you’ll notice a lot! You can even do an experiment and count up the shoulds you say in a single day (no judgment – pretend you’re a research scientist collecting data). Let us know if you do this and what your tally was!
Second, start questioning your shoulds. Ask: “Does this thing that I think I should do need to be done at all?” “Do I want to do this?” and the most fundamental question to ask is: “Would this bring me closer to the life I want?”
Third, replace your shoulds. Every time you say, “I should,” gently rephrase what you said with, “I could,” “I want to,” or “I’m going to.” Instead of using language of criticism, guilt, shame, use language of possibility, intention and accountability.
Remember – this an ongoing practice. We check ourselves on our shoulds every day!
Get It Together / Got It Together
We each share something that’s going well for us at the moment, and something else that we’d like to work on.
Melia Get It Together: Jumping from task to task
Melia Got It Together: Tidying up as she goes
Gill’s Get It Together: Staying up too late
Gill’s Got It Together: Scheduling a haircut
Get In Touch
Tell us how “should” shows up in your own life and the changes you see when you stop shoulding.
Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com, or record a voice memo on your phone and email it. Try out a voice memo with the app on your phone, if you like! You can also leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram.
We’d also love it it if you’d subscribe, rate and review this podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Melia realized while leaving reviews herself that this is not very intuitive on the Apple Podcasts app, so she recommends using iTunes on desktop. Search for Semi-Together, click on the cover art, then Ratings & Reviews and Write a Review. It truly makes a difference to have five-star reviews, so thank you in advance!
- Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten
- “Should – the One Word You Need to Stop Saying Now” by Dr. Sophie Mort
- “Stop Saying the Word ‘Should’” by Hanna Braime
- Melia’s “Reschool Yourself Tool #22: Stop Shoulding”
- The Pomodoro Technique and the Tomato Timer tool