Stop Shoulding on Yourself (and Others)©

If you know me, you know that I believe in the power of words to empower or disempower, especially the words we use about ourselves. You also know that I have given up a long list of words: can’t, try, someday, never, impossible, okay and busy. Well, it’s time to shine a light on another word, one that is not only one of the most disempowering words I know but also a word that is actually damning in its impact. You know this word, and it’s really an easy one – should. Now is the time to tame the shoulding and embrace the no should zone.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, whether in your self-talk or in talking to others. How often do our self-talk sentences begin “I should,” and how often do we start our comments to others with “You should”? It sounds innocent enough – a simple comment about something we think we should or should not do – but it’s rarely that simple. It’s also often used to talk about the past—for example, “I should have” done or not done something. While there is certainly a difference between shoulding about the past (which is not correctable) and shoulding about the future (which can change), the underlying message of the should is almost always about judgment (of self or of others) and/or shame (feeling bad about what you did, didn’t do or haven’t done, or telling someone else that you think they’re not doing the right thing or are doing the wrong thing).

Think about it. While you may genuinely believe that someone “should” do or not do something, the underlying message is that what they’ve already done (or what they’ve failed to do) was wrong or not the right thing, and that’s where the should comes in. Similarly, when you say to yourself that you “should” do or not do something, there’s an inherent judgment or chastising of self for not already having done it or for doing something that you “should” stop doing. In other words, the word “should” is used to tell yourself or someone else that there’s something wrong, incomplete or misguided about what’s been done (or not done) up to this point in time. In short, the should is all about judgment and shame.

The other inherent flaw in the should is that it’s usually based upon what someone else (another person, a typical approach or a cultural norm) thinks I should do or not do—or at least what I project that other opinion to be. Over the last ten years, one of the most classic shoulds I have seen relates to a job or career. For years, the standard wisdom was that you “should” get a safe and secure job, but then the economy changed, and millions of people who had followed the should found themselves out of that safe and secure job. While we sometimes should ourselves based purely upon self-assessments, it’s usually based upon our belief that the should is something that we’re “supposed” to do. Thus, the should is nearly always more about outside perceptions or standards than what I think for myself is the right thing to do (or not do).

It’s time to dump the should. You don’t need it. We don’t need it. Your friends and team members don’t need it. The should is not moving us forward – only reminding us of the mistakes we’ve made, what we haven’t done and the ways that we are stuck.

But what about motivating us or others to change? Doesn’t the should motivate us to change? In short, NO! Instead, the should usually keeps us stuck in the same behavior (either doing something that we think we shouldn’t or failing to do something that we think we should). It seems that saying we should do something makes us feel that we’ve done enough (so we don’t change), or it’s just not compelling enough to cause us to change. In other words, the should becomes a demotivator rather than a motivator.

So it’s clearly time to dump the should – but what will we replace it with? You likely want or need something to replace the should as you assess your plans for the future, offer feedback to others or review what you’ve done (or not done) in the past. First, let’s address the easy one: feedback to others. Instead of telling people (from your own perspective) what they should do – which is, let’s face it, downright rude and intrusive because you can’t really see things for others if it’s from your own unique perspective – ask them a question: Have you thought about ______? Have you thought about trying _____? How do you feel about _______? The best way to help someone else make a decision is to help them see all the perspectives and options, not to tell them what you think they “should” do (or not do).

When it comes to reviewing the past, the should is irrelevant. Certainly, assess what you did or did not do and further assess whether that choice served your best interests. If not, then it’s time for a change. If so, then keep going the way you are. If you determine that you want to change something, then make the change. You don’t need to “should have” yourself in order to make changes. Learning and changing is empowering. Shoulding yourself is shaming and disempowering.

As for your plans for the future, the replacement word is more about making a decision than talking about what you could, might or should do. If you want to do something different, then either do it or commit to it (“I will _________”). If you want to stop doing something, then stop it or commit to stopping it (“I will stop ________”). There are lots of ways to review, consider and assess ideas or options for change, and you don’t need the should for that important process. You certainly don’t serve yourself or others when you use the should to judge, shame or sometimes even bash!

There’s a short list of things that we control – beliefs, words and actions – and your choice of words is one of the most important choices you can make. I invite you to dump the disempowering should (for yourself and others) and to embrace the no shoulding zone. It will change things for the better for you personally and for all of your relationships (both personal and business), and it will open you up to what really matters – making different choices and taking different actions rather than talking about what you should have done or should do. Say goodbye to “should” and welcome “will”!

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