Reframe: How Shoulds Can Build You Up Instead of Beat You Down

by | Sep 21, 2006

The word “should” has gotten a bad rap in recent years. Self-help mavens and the popular media tell us that “shoulding” on yourself is not nice, in fact, it’s downright mean and counterproductive to boot.
I disagree. The voice that “shoulds” is often the voice of inner wisdom, and it speaks to values that are important to you. Often, but not always. There lies the rub.
The dictionary says that “should” expresses obligation or duty, and that’s where things get dicey. Obligation or duty to whom? To what?
When “shoulds” stem from deeply held values, they are mandates to act in accords with your nature. This kind of “should” is the equivalent of a spiritual “must.” “I should let this email sit overnight before deciding whether or not to send it.”
When “shoulds” stem from good ideas, they are mandates to change your nature. (Good luck!)The idea may be lovely, yet this kind of “should” triggers a battle with the self. “I should be more outgoing at the networking breakfasts” is nonsense if, in fact, I am not outgoing. This should is more appropriately explored as a “could.” Besides, how authentic is it to try to change your nature?
And then there are the “shoulds” that are mandates to change external reality. This kind of should is more or less equivalent to an expression of need. “I should clean up the office” = “The office needs to be cleaner.”
Knowing what kind of should you are dealing with stops the inner battle cold. Here are two ways to explore your “shoulds” so that you get the full benefit of connecting with your inner mandates while freeing yourself of extraneous and specious obligations.
Language. Play with shifting “should” to “need,” “must” or “could.” Watch what happens in your body and emotions as you try on these different meanings. Does one of them feel truer? How would you live the “must”? The “could”?
I used to be at war with the cat box. I’d walk by (or catch a whiff) and think, “I should clean that.”
So I tried, “I need to clean the cat box.” Well, that was obviously not true. The world would not come to an end if I didn’t clean the cat box.
Then I tried, “I must clean the cat box.” I noticed that this could be true for me if the cat box were past a certain tipping point with respect to its appearance and odor. Having noticed this, it was a simple matter to assess the state of the box and clean it or not.
And I tried, “I could clean the cat box.” Well, yes, I could. And acknowledging this led me back to the simple question, “Do I want the cat box clean?” If I want it clean and can clean it, well, it hardly takes brute force to prod me into action. (I also realized that, in some situations, it might not be practical to clean the cat box. If I am dashing out the door to catch a ferry, there is probably not time to clean the cat box. In this instance, “I could clean the cat box” is nonsense, and that settles it. No “shoulds” need apply.)

Backtrack. “Shoulds” are only problematic when they lead to inner combat. Go inside, and trace your “should” back to the beginning. See if you can notice where the thought started and when you started to debate it. Is there any peaceful reason not to follow the promptings of the original thought?
I used to be at war with filing. (The truth is, filing and I are not exactly at peace, but we are enjoying a suspension of hostilities.) I’d think, “I should catch up on filing,” and immediately the debate would begin. “Why? Who says?” I’d go round and round until I was either sick of myself or exhausted, and then I’d be certain that the culprit was the original “should.”

The “should” was NOT the problem. The problem was that instead of asking if it was true, I started to argue.
Anyone who has asked for clarification can attest to the difference between questioning and arguing. “Do you really need this by Friday?” is not the same as “Since when do you get to tell me what to do?” Questioning is respectful, open-minded. Arguing is disrespectful and close-minded.
“Shoulds” may be mandates from your heart or propositions born of all sorts of circumstances and influences. Knowing the difference lends dignity to your choices without making you a slave to perfection.