Let me begin by apologizing for not having written sooner! Between business and health issues, I’ve been slow, but now it’s time to rectify that. Additionally, this is a difficult concept for me to express, and I’ve struggled with how to get it across and make sense. So, if the following fails, blame me wholly. It just means I didn’t quite find the right way of putting words together to get my views across.

As usual, I’m beginning by delving in to the literal meaning of the word “Should,” which follows:

Definition of Should 

past tense of SHALL

1used in auxiliary function to express condition
if he should leave his father, his father would die

2used in auxiliary function to express obligation, propriety, or expediency
’tis commanded I should do so
this is as it should be
you should brush your teeth after each meal

3used in auxiliary function to express futurity from a point of view in the past
realized that she should have to do most of her farm work before sunrise

4used in auxiliary function to express what is probable or expected
with an early start, they should be here by noon

5used in auxiliary function to express a request in a polite manner or to soften direct statement
should suggest that a guide … is the first essential

Ok, that’s all a lot of hoopla that shows the technical manner in which “should” should be used … see what I did there?

What I focus on however is more of how it actually is used. In our vernacular, today, the word “should” is used to convey an expectation that at times is outside of reality. Examples are things like “You really should stop eating so much” or “I should have been stronger/faster/smarter” or “What should happen is blah blah blah …”

In other words, we’re applying a measurable expectation to a situation that defies measurement. Saying “You really should stop eating so much” is as much a judgement as it is a piece of advice. In other words, your problem (whatever it is) would be alleviated if you just didn’t eat so much. “I should have been stronger/faster/smarter” is a way that we flog ourselves, after the fact, for failure. Theoretically it can be seen as an attempt to improve a future scenario where the same situation would apply; realistically it is all-too-often a measurement of our inadequacy that can hold us back from moving past a mistake. And “What should happen is blah blah blah …”? Please. Tell me how often stating our government “should” be working for the common welfare actually brings that in to being? Or how often stating doctors should be more compassionate actually brings out the compassion in docs … you get the picture, right?

In my pea-brain, many decades ago, I pondered guilt. Was guilt imposed externally, or internally? What was the difference? Why did that difference matter? I decided that guilt can be imposed externally, say from a mother telling you your actions have caused her hurt. “I can’t believe you did that. What will the neighbors think? How will I ever hold my head up again?” That kind of guilt, believe it or not, we can choose to accept, or not accept. We can turn that statement around and respond with something along the lines of “Maybe you can tell everyone to mind their own business?” or it can simply be ignored. This comes under the issue of choices, in our two previous posts.

Guilt can also be imposed internally. “Oh, wow, I stepped all over your toes, I’m so sorry!” would be an example of this. We did something, we recognize that our something directly harmed someone else (little or lot, doesn’t matter, harm was caused), and we apologize for it. In theory, once we’ve apologized and the other person has accepted the apology our guilt will be assuaged. However, we can — as mentioned above — then fall into the trap of castigating ourselves for whatever it was we did.

This pondering led to the concept of doing things out of a sense of guilt, duty, or obligation. For my purposes here, today, I’m going to exclude the sense of duty that is internally motivated, and focus on the externally-driven sense of duty; my father taught me that it’s my duty to do this. My country demands this duty from me. Anyway, the outcome of all these maunderings was that I decided I would not do anything, anymore, out of a misdirected sense of guilt, duty, or obligation. In other words, I would do things because it’s what I wanted to do, or what I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do. And all of this eventually wound its way down to this simple word …


Should can be a good motivator. “Hrm. I really should get my arse outta bed now, and get to work, so I have money to continue paying for a roof over said bed.” It can be a way of focusing our intentions. From this perspective, I have no problem with this little six-letter word. It’s when it becomes a statement of judgement or an indicator of personal failing that I begin to have issues with it.

I spent literally years thinking I should be Superwoman. You know, full-time employee. Wife. Mother. Church member. Sunday-school teacher. I should be able to handle this entire load, just like every other woman I knew, without breaking down. I should be able to raise my daughters to be happy, sane adults when I was myself anything but happy or sane. I should be able to secure a decent job, without school or training, to supplement our household income. My inability to actually pull any of these off became goads to drive further my sense of inadequacy. Because there was this idealization that was not realistic I held myself to a higher standard than I held others to. In short, I could accept deficiencies and failure in everyone around me … except myself.

Then let’s enter the ex-husbands. Ex-husband #1 I married when I was 17 and he was 21. In some senses, we kinda grew up as adults together; he got the short end of the stick, though, because I was severely broken, and he’d had a relatively normal upbringing. He didn’t know how to deal with me, so he attempted to impose his own sense of what I should be on me. For instance, in dealing with my bulimia, he told me multiple times he couldn’t understand why I sought therapy for it. “I mean, if you don’t want to eat, just don’t eat! Don’t you realize how much money you’re wasting? If you don’t want to do something, you should be able to just make yourself not do it!” There were more examples of this type, but I think this is strong enough on its own to illustrate my point. Ex #2? Whoof. He is a Narcissist, and proud of it. Further, he’s also a self-described “Sexual Sadist” and proud of that as well. His list of “shoulds” was more underhanded, less direct. The first two years of our 10-year marriage were great, but then things began to deteriorate, as they will. Things that were once praise-worthy (“Wow, you’re really good at keeping a budget, will you manage mine, too?”) became things worthy of contempt (“Ok, you’re too controlling with the money. It’s my money, you should just let me decide how to spend it”).

In the case of #1, his view didn’t jive with my reality. If you have never fought with a compulsion, then you absolutely cannot understand it. It’s not called a desire, but a compulsion, for a reason, and that reason is that you cannot resist it. For instance, I’m OCD. I’ve learned to redirect my OCD so it’s not as onerous as it could be, but I’m still OCD and when it’s bad, I must wash my hands. They start feeling covered with gunk, gringy, icky, and while I can put off the hand-washing, there comes a point where I have to give myself permission to do so. For someone who’s struggling with a compulsive behavior (in the above case, the compulsive eating), saying “You should be able to …” implies “Hey, I can choose not to, so if I can, then anyone can.” It is simply setting aside reality (I couldn’t not eat, when the compulsion hit) and imposing your own sense of what’s right or wrong on another person. Further, there’s no way the person hearing the comment can believe anything other than they’re found lacking, in your opinion; they’re not as strong as you. They’re not as determined, disciplined, whatever, as you are. Judgement, in other words. And that is hurtful.

In the case of #2, he took something that he once praised as valorous, and destroyed it, applying a condition that at that time was unmeetable. You see, to manage our household budget I’d created a spreadsheet which I reproduced yearly. Once a year I’d sit down, plot out incomes, plot out expenses, set aside savings, and I ran the household by that budget. Yes, it had to be modified on occasion, but the setup and the modifications were done with both of us present. Giving him the ability to manage his own money, himself, would have meant his/our accounts being overdrawn regularly, as they ended up being when, in frustration, I asked him to just manage everything for us. In a couple of short months we lost my car, our home, and any savings I’d built up. His statement was again a disregard of reality (he couldn’t manage money) and a statement of failure on my part (I wasn’t letting him spend what he wanted, so I was a Femi-nazi).

By the end of the second marriage I was thoroughly fed up with this whole imposed concept of “Should.” So what’s the alternative, then? I mean, we also use “Should” to denote things we’re focused on achieving, right? When is it ok for me to use that word, and when not? I’ll spare you the long years of debate and internal debate, and just let you hear what I came to that works for me.

“Today I am going to …” instead of “I should do …”

“I am going to focus my efforts on …” instead of “I should focus on …”

“When do you want to get together?” instead of “We should get together sometime”

These are simple examples but they’re really good ones. The gist of it is this: Rather than use language that imposes, I’m using language that is more direct, more to the point. I’m avoiding something that’s open-ended, and which implies I can choose not to do it. I think that’s another part of this whole “Should” thing — using that word gives us an out, but that out is such that we regret it later, abuse ourselves later for the failure to have done it.

This language works as well with others as it does with ourselves, and honestly, it’s really our selves that I want to focus on next. You see, one of the other downfalls of “Should” is the opportunity for self-castigation.

“I should have been a better mother”

“I should have been a better wife”

“I should have been a better employee”

“I should have been smarter”

“I should have known better”

How many times have these words, or words very like them, run through your mind? How many times have you beaten yourself up over your perceived failure in a situation that, sometimes, occurred years or more ago? How many more times do you want to do this to yourself? This is where I fall back on the belief that “Should” is an imposition of an idea on reality. You see, the reality is that I wasn’t a better mother, or a better wife. I was, in fact, the absolute best mother and wife I could be, but I wasn’t better. I was the best employee I could be, but I wasn’t, in fact, better. And by the way — better than what? Better than another employee? Another wife, mother, whatever? Pft.

By continuing to use these “failures” against ourselves, we keep ourselves trapped in that moment, in that failure. Let’s completely disregard the fact that failure ain’t actually bad, but rather that it’s a learning process. Let’s just look at our mindset when we use “Should” against ourselves.

First of all, you cannot go forward if you remain facing backward. Simple physics will tell you that! Ok, yes, you could step “backwards,” but do you really wanna move toward something without being able to see it? So let’s just go with the simple analogy … you cannot move forward if you remain facing backward. This then begs the question — is the past somewhere you wish to be? Is it a good place for you to be? In my ever-so-humble opinion, not if it keeps you believing in your own inadequacy.

Second, you cannot learn how to accept, and move on from, failure if you won’t learn from it. And I’m sorry, but this idea of “Should” absolutely gets in the way of learning from failure. Example: I want to run a 1k. I begin training. I push my training to the point I believe I may actually have an opportunity to cross the finish line … and then I don’t. So my choices now are to castigate myself for failing, or to set my eyes on the next 1k, and ask myself “What do I need to do so next time, I’ll cross the line?” If I keep my mind set on my failure, without regard to what I’ve learned from it, I may never even try to run another 1k. However, if I immediately begin a plan and a program for increasing my physical stamina and ability, then I may very well cross that line next time; and if not? Then I’ve got a new baseline to work from, and I can try yet again.

Further. When we tell others what they should or should not be doing, we’re actually trying to convince the other person to do what we think we would do. Example: Let’s say my friend Isabella comes over, and she’s complaining about her boyfriend treating her like crap. If I say “You should just dump him,” I’m giving her the insight of what I think I would do, without regard to all the nuances of which she is aware, and I am not. For instance, is this a one-time crap-like treatment? Did he just have a bad day? Is there other information I’m missing, like, did Isabella have a bad day and antagonize him? There are so many variables, and I don’t have all the information, even if I listen to everything Isabella says. So for me to blithely comment “You should just dump him,” I’m not really listening to my friend, rather I’m listening-to-rebut. I’ll get into that on another blog, but it’s important here. Sometimes, maybe, Isabella just wants to come hang out, vent, and have someone who cares about her listen. When I butt in with my big mouth and my imposition of what I think I would do, I’m not really giving her that; rather, I’m imposing a judgement, and that judgement says “I’m smart enough to realize he’s a jerk, but you’re not.”

Some other possible responses in the above case would be:

“Hm. I’m sorry, sounds like you’re having a bad day. What can I do?”

“Oh, wow, he said that? That doesn’t sound like him, is he having a bad day or what?”

“How can I help?”

In other words, there’s nothing about “I” in those statements, it’s all about Isabella, and there’s absolutely no judgement. Now, if she asks me what I think she “should” do? I might respond by pointing out that I’m not her, living her life, but if I understand the situation right, I might do such-and-such. Again, no “You should,” but rather “I might.” It leaves Isabella with the understanding that I’m trying to answer her question without imposing my own self on her, or her actions.

Did I mention that this is a very hard topic for me to write about? I know what I want to say, but it sounds so distracted and scattered to me! It’s a completely different way of thinking than what we’re accustomed to. I have to wonder how much of that is because we’ve become so accustomed to being told what we should do. I mean, how about “Eat a low-fat diet,” ya’ll? Or “Go to college and get a great job!” or “Get into computers, it’s the next big thing, you’ll make tons of money!” … until the outscourcing starts. Or until we realize that the low-fat diet is actually making us fat. Or until we learn that our over-blown, super-costly college education is good for making student loan companies money … and not much else.

But we keep listening to what we “Should” do. “Should” want to be. “Should” model ourselves after. People (all 15 of you now?), if you get nothing else I say, please get this.

Let go of “Should.” Let go of the concept altogether. Learn how to speak and think in a manner that is not judgmental — of yourself, or of others. Learn how to function within the reality that is, not the reality you wish existed. I mean, that I know of, we haven’t yet learned how to switch realities, so this is all we got right now. Disregarding it, while comfortable for a brief time, is not the answer to surviving reality, and “Should” is about the biggest lie that disregards reality I know, personally.

Yes, I’m aware I’m an odd one. That’s ok, though. I can’t say I’m completely free of the tyranny of should, but I can say that every time that dirty word pops in my head, I redirect it so that it both honors reality, and honors me and the person/people I’m dealing with. I can’t say it’s made my life perfect, but I will absolutely state that it’s made my life, and hopefully the lives of my friends, much more bearable.


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