If there’s one word that should come with a big flashing neon light around it, it’s ‘should’. The German psychoanalyst Karen Horney perceptively talked about “the tyranny of the should.”  

What does it mean if we say that we should do something? It means that we don’t actually want to do it, and quite probably that we won’t actually do it.

Maybe we’re using ‘shoulds’ because someone else wants us to do something, but we know deep down that this thing isn’t right for us. If we then do it, we will feel resentful, and probably make less time for the things that are right for us.

If we don’t do it, then we will probably feel guilty, because, after all we should do it.

Who says?

Now, I’m not saying that we won’t ever do things for other people that we don’t want to do- a lot of time that’s called having a job. But we need to recognise that it’s not about should. We choose to do these things because we want to earn money, or because we want to help, or because we are really awful at saying no. But it’s still a choice. Shoulds don’t come into it.

Self-imposed ‘shoulds’.

The same thing goes for self imposed shoulds. You know:

  • I should meditate more.
  • I should get some exercise.
  • I should go to bed earlier.

Again, should has nothing to do with it. Either you want to do these things or you don’t. If you really want to, then do them. If you don’t, then that’s a choice too. Saying you should do something does not mean that you’ve therefore made some effort and can therefore let yourself off the hook.

And then there’s all the time and energy we waste telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel certain ways. ‘I shouldn’t feel angry’, ‘I shouldn’t feel jealous’. It may come as a surprise to you, but we actually can’t control our emotions. This doesn’t mean that we can go around shouting at people or hitting them. We can’t control our emotions because they arise unbidden from deep unconscious parts of ourselves. However, we can of course control the actions we take as a result of these emotions, and we can avoid ruminating over the emotions, and justifying them by telling ourselves stories. Just feel them, hear what they have to say, and let them go on their way.

Applying ‘shoulds’ to other people.

And finally, what about applying shoulds to other people?

This is probably the source of a great deal more unhappiness than applying shoulds to ourselves.

Just think about it.

How much time and energy do you spend each day thinking that other people should or shouldn’t do things? People in the street or the supermarket should be more thoughtful, and keep a greater distance. My editor should get back to me more quickly. My husband should pick his socks up off the floor.

Now, I’m not saying that we can’t ever seek to change other people’s behaviour. We can certainly give feedback, and explain why what they’re doing is causing problems for us. But that isn’t the same thing as judging what they’re doing. In some cases, it may be clearer that there is a right way of doing something- we all know that we ‘should’ keep a distance from each other. But in other cases, it may just be a choice. Maybe my editor is trying to work more efficiently by only looking at emails twice a day? Maybe it doesn’t actually matter if there are socks on the floor.

But however objectively right we may be, we usually can’t control what other people do anyway. So, give the feedback if you like, but don’t attach to the outcome. It’s so much less stressful.

So, today try and notice the word ‘should’ and every time you do, question it. What does the person using it actually mean? How helpful is it? How would it feel if you replaced should with choose not to?

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