One of the things I encounter most in my CBT practice is clients who use the word “should” in almost every other sentence. It’s my opinion that “should” is the dirtiest word in the English language and needs to be challenged as often as possible. Anyone who has spent time in therapy sessions with me knows this is often one of the first things we talk about.
The problem with the word “should” isn’t the word itself; it is the emotional heaviness it carries. “Should” is absolutely loaded with guilt and the expectation that there is only one right way to do something. When we tell ourselves we “should” or “shouldn’t” do something and then do or do not do it, we feel guilt, frustration, and sometimes shame. It leaves little room for compromise or creative problem-solving.
I’ll give you an example:
You’re at work and are absolutely swamped with projects. You tell yourself you “should” stay as late as you need to in order to finish it, but you also want to get home to spend time with your partner and/or children. You decide to go ahead and leave work because you’re going out of town and won’t be able to spend time with your family for the next few days. However, you spend all of that time with your family worrying and feeling guilty about the work you left unfinished. All because you told yourself you “should” be working. The flip side of this is that if you chose to stay at work because you “should” finish your projects, you will likely feel guilty and sad when you get home and there is no time for family dinner or your children are in bed. It’s a lose, lose situation.
But, how do we clean up our language?
The first thing we need to do is ask ourselves the question “why?”. Why is working more important than spending time with your family? Why does it HAVE to be the priority?
We use “should” constantly in our lives; the word is so ingrained in our vernacular we don’t even realize most of the time when we say it. Awareness of how we talk to ourselves is key. We need to identify when we use the word “should”, ask ourselves why it has to be that certain way, and then determine if there are other options for how to handle the situation that will reduce guilt.
I typically encourage clients to first try to notice when others around them are using the word “should” to bring greater awareness to it. I also challenge them in session when I hear them say it, and we break it down to find a more reasonable way to think about it. They get bonus points if they catch me saying it!
In the example above, a more accurate way of thinking about the situation would be (and there are many options): “I feel overwhelmed with work and I’m worried I won’t be able to finish it in time, but I feel torn because I really want to see my family.” That breaks down all of the feelings more accurately, which then allows you to move forward with problem-solving. You might decide to stay for one hour and do what you can but get home before the kids go to bed or your partner starts your Game of Thrones Binge-a-thon. You might decide to leave the office right then to get home for dinner and then do some work later. There are multiple options for compromise and problem-solving.
“Should” keeps us mired in the guilt and keeps us paralyzed. It takes time and effort to change the way we think about the things in our life we believe must be done or prioritized a certain way, but it is definitely possible, and you’ll find you feel much freer, less guilty, and often more motivated.