The Tyranny of “Shoulds”

Written by: Alice D. Hoag, Ed.D.
The Tyranny of “Shoulds”

Shoulds abound in our lives. We hear them everywhere: from both outside of ourselves (family, friends, culture) and inside our own heads. “I really should do…” Or “I should have done…” or “you shouldn’t.…”

“Should” is a tyrant, a cruel and oppressive ruler. When we hear a should, suddenly a weight is plopped on our shoulders. We slump as if burdened. And we are burdened: with criticism, with obligation, with falling short, and with guilt or shame.

Should’s twin is “ought.” Same meaning, different word. Both imply an weighty duty and a disapproving condemnation, and sometimes even a sense of failure. It reminds me of being handcuffed, judged, and sitting on the floor in a corner, being found lacking in some way or being wrong.

There is an alternative: “could.” “I could have done such and such, and I didn’t.” Or “…and I chose to do this instead.” or “…and I didn’t want to.” And so on. “Coulds” lead to possibilities and empowerment. Could implies options that were explored and the best (or most desirable) option at that moment was chosen. It brings with it a sense of standing tall with one’s shoulders back, of being decisive, of knowing and following one’s own boundaries, values, priorities, and preferences.

I still catch a should coming out of my mouth every once in a while. But as soon as I catch it, I pause, reflect briefly, and then change my words. (“I should have finished that report by now. I mean, I could have finished that report by now, and something more important to me came up, and I chose to do that instead.”)

Recent advances in the field of neurobiology point to how our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system works, and one of the things that triggers our fight-flight response is being denied a choice; being forced against one’s will to do something. If I “should on myself,” I am removing my freedom to choose what I want to choose, and am obligating myself to one specific choice that I apparently don’t really want to do. This results in activating the threat response and triggers anger or anxiety (fight or flight).

When I choose could instead of should, I’m being more honest with myself, and I’m acknowledging that I really do have a choice in every action I do or every word that I say. No one is forcing me to act a certain way, no one is forcing me to feel certain feelings, and no one is forcing me to say the things I say. These are all my choices. It is my responsibility to choose how I live my life, and it is my responsibility to live with the consequences of my choices, both pleasant and unpleasant.

So, choose well. It is your responsibility to be the best you that you know how to be at any/every given moment. It is your responsibility to choose your actions, feelings, motives, and words that you can live with and that will bring a sense of lightness to your step, to your shoulders, and to your heart.

I would be honored to come alongside as you work towards living a life that is consistent with being the best version of you, and uncovering and eliminating any obstacles in the way.