The Word “Should” Has No Place in Your Vocabulary

In emerging from a particularly challenging season, I lamented to a mentor all the mistakes I had made. I was eager to pull myself out of despair but was drowning in shame, guilt, regret, and self-judgment. I was determined to learn from my circumstances but was stuck feeling angered and frustrated by them.

She let me talk, then shared how eliminating “should” from her vocabulary had made a big difference in her life; maybe I would like to do the same?  She challenged me to be mindful of ANY time I found myself thinking or speaking the word “should”. “See if you feel better or worse about your reflections once you have judged them with a ‘should’.”  The difference it made in her life, she said, was profound.

I was skeptical but quickly realized that I didn’t need the word at all.  It was not difficult to re-wicker my mental narrative, eliminating that word; what I didn’t expect was that it would take a lot of bad feelings with it when it walked out the door. Gone were the regrets, second-guessing and self-loathing; in came the forward-looking, reflective words that helped me accept what had been and plan for a better future.  Reactive and regretful were replaced by proactive and positive. Here’s how:

No “Should”, No Shame

It goes like this: “I should have a clean house at all times so I am always ready for a *surprise* guest”, or “I should have made today’s to-do list yesterday”. Somewhere between making mud pies and drafting our first resume, we picked up messages about how we “should” be. When life catches up to us and we have more balls in the air than we could ever catch at one time, we turn our anger inwards for the ways we fall short.

Beating ourselves up for what we should have done, or telling ourselves who we should be, is akin to fighting an enemy within us.  It drains our energy from other tasks and perpetuates a negative self-talk cycle.

Try This Instead:

Let’s update the narrative, shall we?  Eliminating “should” looks like this: “I would like to have a clean house, and I accept that my house is going to be a bit messy in this season of life.” or “Today, I’ll save five minutes at the end of my day to make tomorrow’s to-do list.”

No “Should”, No Guilt

Tell me if this sounds familiar: “I should have invited the new hire to lunch on her first day”, or “I should have volunteered at the kids’ science fair on Wednesday morning.”  We try to squeeze ten lives into one. We’re bursting at the seams with commitments and responsibility; if that wasn’t enough on its own, we allow ourselves to feel guilty about all of the ways we are falling short.

Ladies, dust off your copies of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and remember this fact: “In 1975, stay-at-home mothers spent an average of about eleven hours per week on primary child care (defined as routine caregiving and activities that foster a child’s well-being, such as reading and fully focused play)… Today, stay-at-home mothers spend about seventeen hours per week on primary child care, on average, while mothers who work outside the home spend about eleven hours.” Sandberg concludes by stating, “An employed mother today spends about the same amount of time on primary child care activities as an unemployed mother did in 1975.”

We stretch ourselves to our absolute max, then feel guilty about not being able to stretch further.  Let’s accept the known history as fact, re-frame the narrative, and take back control of our minds and our futures.  Eliminating “should” does this for us.

Try This Instead:

“I’m going to stop by the new hire’s office tomorrow. I’ll give her five minutes of my undivided attention, offer to help her make connections in her new hometown, and extend her a warm welcome.” Also, this: “My job prevents me from volunteering during the week. I will invest ten minutes this evening writing a note to the teacher/another volunteer acknowledging the time she gave to the school.”

No “Should”, No Regret

“I should have prepared a homemade meal for Julia’s family during her recovery from surgery.” “I should have read the materials before the first session of the conference.”  Where do these thoughts get us? Nowhere! Are they the key to the time machine that allows us to go back and “do-over” whatever we’re so upset about? Nope!

Sometimes, we use regret as an excuse to justify our behavior. Rather than owning the choices that we made, we punch ourselves in the face with a “should have” and don’t consider the toll that these punches take on us. Before we know it, this has become a behavior we repeat whenever it suits us. Don’t want to figure out how to handle something? Just don’t do it, then give yourself a “should have” sucker punch.

If I had to picture what regret looks like in human form, it is a robber, cloaked in black, visiting us at night to steal into our minds and walk away with our most precious resource: our TIME.

How much TIME do we spend looking backward, beating ourselves up about things we simply.cannot.change? This mental practice is criminal!  Let’s outlaw the word “should” from our minds and commit to living in the present and making plans (that we commit to honoring) for the future. Eliminating “should” is the first step. 

Try This Instead:

“I’m short on time but big on loving others. I’ll make a list in my phone of places where I can pick up a prepared meal that I’m happy with so that next time, I will be able to contribute.”

“It is unlikely that I will ever pre-read the materials for a conference. I am making peace with that and committing to giving the speaker my full attention.”

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No “Should”, No Judgment

How many times have you said to your kids, “You should have picked the wet towel up off the floor.” or “She should have sent the email last week instead of today.” 

Both sentences may be true; however, when delivered, the recipient understands that a) their behavior is being judged, and b) their behavior has been found lacking.

As parents and as managers, we find ourselves in positions to judge others’ behavior and performance.  We are tasked with helping them make good decisions and develop into capable adults and employees. Nevertheless, the words we say to them as mentors frame the narrative they carry with them. Eliminating “should” from this narrative helps them. 

Try This Instead:

Give some thought to hearing the following messages from someone whose respect and admiration you covet: “Next time you shower, hang the towel on the rack to dry.” “I’d like to see you send the email one week in advance of our next meeting so we have more time to prepare.” 

No matter whether we use the word “should” or not, the message receiver is unable to go back in time to change their behavior; all they can control is the choices they make in the future. Give them some feedback that they can take action on in the future, rather than a judgment on their shortcomings in the past.

Are you satisfied with all the “shoulds” in your life?  If not, take the word out and replace it with something you can take action on in the future.  These are some feelings that I am striving to leave in the past, along with the word “should”: shame, guilt, regret, and judgment.

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