Refusing “Should”

I am a writer, a linguist, a storyteller, a wordsmith. Words are what I do. Language fascinates me. So it’s pretty rare that you will find me banning a word from my world (aside from slurs and such).

But sometimes, it’s necessary. So what, you might ask, is the word I’ve deemed so horrible, so useless, that it has to go?


I got the idea from Pace & Kyeli of Connection Revolution, originally, although by now I couldn’t tell you whether it was a blog post, or their ebook The Usual Error (highly recommended, btw), or in their 52 Weeks to Awesome course (also very highly recommended!).  I can, however, tell you what I’ve learned by giving up should.

I have learned that should is a word of tension.  It is itself caused by tension between what you really want, and the price of getting it.  It also causes tension and pain when you apply it to yourself, and use as a weapon against yourself.  How many times have you tried to flog yourself into action by telling yourself “I really should do ___…” and trying to use the guilt provoked by that phrase as a motivating force?

Uh-huh.  And how often does that work?

Perhaps there are people out there for whom guilt, shame, and should are genuinely motivating.  But I have found that loving and gentling yourself into action is A: a lot easier, and B: more likely to work.  Case in point: I tried to guilt and flog myself into keeping a clean house – particularly my kitchen – for YEARS.  It never worked.  My kitchen was a constant wreck!  Then, a few months ago, I started reading The Fluent Self and Goddess Guidebook and treating myself with love and gentleness, even when I didn’t have a clean kitchen.  I stopped treating the kitchen like a should and instead treated it like something I really wanted.  Lo and behold, my kitchen is now more or less clean on a regular basis.

Same thing for my political/feminism blog, Witch.Words.  I was always telling myself I should post more, I should write about this news item or that one.  And yeah, sometimes I did.  But more often, the weight of the shoulds stressed me to the point where I avoided my blog, and any thoughts about it, and any attempts to write on it, in order to avoid the stress.

Shoulds are unproductive, unhelpful, annoying, and hurtful.  So when you find yourself using should, how do you fix it?

First, we start with the basic equation:

desired outcome + difficult or undesirable tasks required to reach the desired outcome = should

When you find the word “should” creeping into your thoughts about a given task, look for this equation.  Here’s what my kitchen situation looked like in these terms:

A clean kitchen for me to cook in + having to do a lot of dishes, which I hate doing, on a regular basis = should

What I wanted was the clean kitchen, so that I could feel comfortable cooking and eating healthfully instead of eating a lot of fast food and highly processed foods.  But to get that kitchen clean, and keep it clean, I would have to first do a lot of dishes (to catch up and *get* the kitchen clean in the first place) and then commit to doing dishes every day, along with wiping down counters and taking out the trash and all that fun stuff.  I hate doing dishes, though.  So I wanted the kitchen clean, but I really didn’t want to do the work required.  And that translated to me looking at the kitchen and going “I should do something about that…”  Which only made me feel guilty, and angry at myself for being so lazy, etc. etc. etc.

Once you’ve broken the should down into its component parts, however, you have the opportunity to refocus your energy.  You can go from saying “I really should clean the kitchen,” to saying “I want a clean kitchen, and I’m willing to do the work to have it.”  Which one sounds more empowering to you?  When you focus on what you want, and make the commitment to do the work it requires even if the work is unpleasant, you’re more motivated.  Positive motivation, versus guilt-based motivation.

Of course, maybe you aren’t willing to do the work.  You don’t always have to turn a should into a yes-I’m-doing-it.  There’s a should I had a few weeks ago, when an ex-boss called me up and offered me a couple days a week working for her again.  I’m unemployed (trying to transition to self-employed, but not there yet!) and could use the money…but I really, really disliked working for her.  I told her I’d call her back, hung up, and started should‘ing all over myself.  “I really should take this,” I thought.  “I need the money.  I should tell her yes.”  So what was the equation here?

A job with steady income + having to work for someone I am deeply uncomfortable with = should

When I looked at it in those terms, I realized I wasn’t willing to deal with working for her.  The job and income weren’t worth it.  So that’s a should I gave up and simply said no to, and that’s okay, too.  Doing this technique helps you gain clarity on what you really mean when you say you should do something.  Sometimes you’ll decide the outcome is worth the cost, and sometimes you’ll decide it’s not.  Either way, having the decision made relieves the burden caused by should.

What shoulds are you struggling with?  Do you find should-phrases helpful or not?  Give this technique a try and let me know how it works for you!


~ by jadelynkaia on 04.18.2011.

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