July 28, 2022 by Amanda Reill
“Should” is a word that doesn’t usually occur in a vacuum. One “should” leads to another “should,” which can lead to the feeling that you’re sitting in a pile of everything you “should” be doing. On some days, this word seems so powerful that it doesn’t matter what you choose to do. You may be folding laundry feeling that you should spend more time with your kids, or you are relaxing and feeling that you should be doing more housework, or the real kicker — feeling that you should be relaxing more.
The endless “should cycle” makes self-confidence and satisfaction feel just out of reach, like a carrot hanging in front of a mule. Why is this word so dangerous, and should we consider breaking up with it?
You’re sitting on the couch with your feet up for what seems like the first time this week and your mind is spinning with all the remaining items on your to-do list. Sure, you believe rest is important in theory, but isn’t it selfish to choose relaxation when so much is left to do?
We don’t even realize it, but we’re initiating a conversation between our inner parent and our inner child. The child’s natural tendency, when faced with this authority, is to rebel. All of the sudden, the word “should” becomes an authority figure that makes us want to internally run the other way. It’s overwhelming! The “should” asks us to do far more than we have hours for in the day. Deep down, we know “should” isn’t qualified to be in charge. So rather than carefully weighing its suggestions, we plug our ears.
We come by this dynamic naturally, though. Just like how it’s en vogue to say “We’ve just been crazy busy!” it also feels almost heroic to confess that we “should” be doing more of whatever it is our neighbor is doing. It’s a cultural expectation for many of the communities we live in to maintain aspirations and a schedule that exceeds the number of hours in the day.
One of the many problems with this mentality is that it focuses on doing instead of being. We’re constantly asking what we can accomplish and how well we can “keep up” instead of who we are trying to become, and whether our daily activities reflect the future self we’re striving toward.
When we start or stop a new habit, we often gravitate toward sheer willpower to get the job done. But getting curious about why we have the habit in the first place can get to the heart of it, like pulling a weed out by the roots. Consider asking yourself some of the following questions to discover where your tendency to “should” comes from:
When trying to break a “should” habit, doing the interior work is the first priority. Consider setting aside some time to examine your relationship with this word by taking a walk, doing some journaling, or having an intentional conversation with another person where you explore the above questions. Try to take the “shoulds” from broad to granular: rather than “I should exercise,” phrase it as “I should exercise today” and then consider how you can exchange the word “should” for something else.
If the third version of any of those seems like too much of a stretch, it may be time to re-consider whether that item is truly a priority for you, and why or why not.
Start listening for the word “should” coming into your mind and out of your mouth. It may be helpful to enlist trusted family members or friends to alert you when they hear the word. Leaning on what you “should” be doing could be an indication that you’ve slipped out of the driver’s seat in your life and are feeling dragged around by an external force.
It’s healthy to recognize things you could use more of in your life. But trading in the mysterious and questionable authority of the word “should” for “I will, I want to, I’m going to” can make you feel empowered to act intentionally — and that’s a beautiful thing.
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