Should and Shouldn’ts
There is a word that I think is one of the most potentially harmful words in the English language. It’s a word that always leaps out at me whenever I hear it in the counselling room. And I do – often. It’s a word many of us use and hear frequently but probably give very little thought to.
That word is ‘should.’ Innocuous enough you might think but I’d like to share why I think it’s a word that should be used with care.
In the therapy room, I often hear statements like, ‘I know I shouldn’t get so angry / sad /anxious,’ or ‘I should just get over it.’ Or I might hear something like, ‘I should have settled down and had a family by now.’ The word ‘should’ is usually loaded with judgement. It often implies that there is something wrong with the speaker and that it’s all their fault.
It’s also a word that can prevent us from accepting reality. I could spend the rest of my life thinking I should be different to how I am and forever beat myself up for it; or I could accept that I struggle to live up to certain expectations, my own and those of others, and find a way to accept, mitigate and live with my perceived failures.
Whenever you catch yourself using the word ‘should’ I recommend asking yourself the following questions, ‘says who?’
Sometimes the answer might be obvious. Sometimes we can hear the very word being spoken by some prominent person or people in our lives. Often parents, teachers or religious leaders from our childhood. Voices that we carry around inside us like an echo from the past. Other times it’s less clear where the voice comes from. Every culture and family comes with its own set of injunctions that are passed from generation to generation and whose origins are lost in time; arbitrary standards that we hold ourselves to without ever consciously thinking what their purpose might be.
Occasionally we absorb the shoulds and shouldn’ts of those who might be trying to exert control over us for personal gain or political expedience. I have worked with a number of survivors of abusive relationships who tell how their abusers were extremely keen on dictating exactly what they should and shouldn’t be feeling in any possible circumstance.
Consider a person unlucky enough to find them self afflicted by illness or disability and unable to work in a climate that demonises so-called shirkers and skivers. To be genuinely unable to work and yet live in a society that thinks you should just try harder without zero understanding of your unique, personal circumstances can only heap pain upon suffering.
Of course, sometimes, there are things we absolutely should or shouldn’t do. I learned from my parents at a young age that I shouldn’t stick things in plug sockets, wee in the street, or pull other people’s hair. I learned that I should eat my greens, clean my teeth and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. As an adult I can question the validity of these shoulds and shouldn’ts but (for the most part, at least for as long as any one might be looking) I still choose to abide by them to this day.
The most pervasive shoulds and shouldn’ts in my book are the ones that dictate not just what we should do but how we should be. If we grow up being told, for example, that we shouldn’t be angry, how are we to deal with injustices in life? If we’re told we shouldn’t be scared how do we know when we should run away to protect ourselves? We can’t help how we feel. We are responsible for what we do with our feelings but we can’t switch them on or off just because we or others don’t like them. If we’re going to punish ourself for feeling angry or sad or scared, all normal human responses to the things life throws at us, then we’re going to have an even harder time of it.
So, when you catch yourself using the ‘S’ word ask yourself that question, ‘says who?’
Can you distinguish between the shoulds and shouldn’ts in your life that are broadly beneficial and those that are harmful? When you use the word is it for good reason or the result of arbitrary cultural or social artefacts? Do those telling you who you should be and how you should act have your best interests at heart or their own? And are you focussing on the things you can actually change and influence? Or punishing yourself for things that you can’t directly control?
In many ways ‘should‘ is such an insignificant word but one that I think should always be used with care.
I’m a qualified counsellor working in Exeter in Devon. To arrange a free, initial consultation with me please visit my Contact page here.