What Are Your Silent Shoulds?

We’ve been consciously eliminating “should” from our vocabulary because it’s a word rooted in expectation, obligation, and criticism. But there are still some silent shoulds lurking in our thoughts, driving our feelings and actions.

Back in Episode 13: Stop Shoulding, we discussed why “should” is a word rooted in expectation, obligation, and criticism (it’s a good one to go back and listen to if you missed it or need a refresher). Since then, we’ve mostly eliminated it from our vocabulary, which has felt liberating and has significantly boosted our happiness.

Even so, there are still plenty of silent shoulds lurking in our thoughts. Though we may not even be aware of them, they are nonetheless driving our feelings and actions. 

The main three reasons shoulds are unhelpful are: 

1. They get in the way of your 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.

2. The things we think we should do often don’t align with what we actually want.

When you feel overwhelmed by shoulds, stop and ask yourself, “Where am I getting this idea?” We’re often influenced by how our culture, media or others around us define how a successful person acts and looks. But we can get curious and ask: What is it that I actually want to do?

3. When we put shoulds on ourselves or others, we’re not accepting the reality of our present situation.

When you tell yourself you should be doing something, you’re reinforcing the idea that you’re not doing it. If you do actually want to do that thing, great! You can choose to do it. But if you don’t really want to, and you feel like you “should” want to, remember that shoulds are totally made up. Release yourself from the guilt and shame of things that aren’t important to you.

Silent shoulds can be even more damaging because that they can be below our awareness but driving our thoughts, feelings, and actions. And they’re often vague and irrational. They can come from a variety of sources:

  • Nature and nurture: A combination of our genetic hardwiring and personality + how we were raised and what we saw in our family of origin
  • Culture and society: Messages we absorb in media (reality and scripted TV, movies, books), and among our peers (on social media and in our real-life networks)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and thought modeling are helpful in reframing and rewriting our silent shoulds. It’s not what happens that makes us unhappy – it’s our thoughts about what happens. 

As Brené Brown says, “What story am I telling myself about this?” Thoughts create feelings; feelings fuel actions; actions drive results. This is the secret to happiness and success in life! It takes an instant to understand, a lifetime to master.

Our Silent Shoulds


  • If I work hard, I should be rewarded – things should go my way, and I should end up with a happy and fulfilling life
  • I should have my life figured out by now (fill in the age) 
  • Things should be perfect, or they’re worthless
  • I should be able to produce more paid work, faster / should have done more with my creative projects by now
  • As a mom, I should:
    • Keep a clean house
    • Be skilled at planning and executing parties and gatherings
    • Organize appointments for doctor, dentist, vet, groomer
    • Make sure the kids have everything they need for school and activities and are clean, tidy, and well fed


  • I should be doing more work / anything “unproductive” is a waste of time 
  • I should be spending more time on creative projects / I should have done this already 
  • “Good girl” cultural expectations – I should be nice, pleasant, helpful, accommodating, non-disruptive at all times. I should say yes, I should help someone out.
  • Women should be mothers / I should want to have kids 
  • I should be more like that person [comparisons on social media]
  • I should be more organized
  • I should reach out, schedule a call, find time for people

Tips for Overcoming Silent Shoulds

We recommended three steps for dealing with shoulds in Episode 13. We’ve modified them to help you manage the insidious internal shoulds:

1. Just notice when a “should” or one of its variations – “need to,” “got to”, “have to,” or “supposed to” – “pops into your head. Don’t judge or beat yourself up about it. No, “I shouldn’t be saying should!” That’s second arrow stuff (a Buddhist parable about causing yourself additional unnecessary pain that we talk about in EP 39). Simply acknowledge the should as a thought you’re having.

For example: If you think, “I should be further along in my career” or “I should go for a run,” just notice the thought and get curious about it. 

2. Question the should. Ask: Says who? Where is this coming from? Where am I getting this idea? Is this something I truly believe or want to do? Is this thing that I think I should do an actual necessity or priority? Would this bring me closer to the life I want? 

For example: Melia thought Evan shouldn’t wear the same sweatshirt to school every day when he has several to choose from. If he wants to and it’s not dirty, then that’s up to him.

3. Rewrite the should. Practice doing this in your head, out loud and on paper – so you have a few options ready to use, depending on the situation. When you think, “I should…” gently reword it with language of possibility, intention and accountability (instead of criticism, guilt or shame). Think: “I could,” “I want to,” or “I’m going to.” If you can, say the new sentence out loud, or write it down in a notebook.

For example, for Melia: “I should write a book about the Reschool Yourself project.”  → “I could.” (I could do a number of other things with that material, or nothing – I get to decide.” —  “I get to decide” is a helpful mantra.

For other silent shoulds, rephrase the thought entirely: Things should be perfect, or they’re worthless. → NOTHING is perfect. People and things have value in all their messy imperfection. “Progress, not perfection” and “Better done than perfect” are helpful mantras here.

Get It Together / Got It Together

We each share something that we’d like to work on and something that’s going well for us right now.

Melia Get It Together: Not getting enough sleep, prioritizing Present Melia’s fun over Future Melia’s well-being

Melia’s Got It Together: Finally brought the car in for new tires and fixed the turn signal 

Gill’s Get It Together: Not practicing the pause, quickly getting angry or annoyed

Gill’s Got It Together: Consciously completing the stress cycle 

Get In Touch

What are your silent shoulds? How can you reframe them in a more intentional way, where you get to decide?Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com or send us a voice memo.

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