Why I’m Done with ‘Should’

It’s interesting to me to hear people talk about words that they hate.  Most people seem to have an issue with moist (I don’t, but I get it).  Or overused buzzwords like synergy that sometimes seem to lose all meaning when spoken aloud.

I have a deep, long-standing issue with the word should.

Even writing it here makes me cringe a little.  Maybe it’s not should’s fault; maybe it’s mine.  After all, I used to use this word to regularly beat myself in the head with any lack of accomplishment.  You should do the laundry.  You should work out.  You should get up – it IS almost noon after all, you lazy ass.

The trouble with should for me is that it was one of my negative voice’s favorite words and it was often pulled out as a yardstick to show me just how far I was falling short of whatever ideal existed in the moment.  And when this voice spoke in my mind, it didn’t seem to matter what I had accomplished, it was never good enough.  If I had done one thing that day, there were two more I hadn’t.  If I had done a dozen, there were a hundred more I hadn’t.  And if I had done nothing at all, if I had just laid in bed wrapped in the fog of depression, it would hammer at me until I curled into a ball weeping.  Gosh, why can’t you just get it together?  Everyone else can do this.  You should be able to handle this better.

Perhaps because of this negative connotation, for me there is no faster way to zap the joy from something than to apply this word to it.  “I should go write,” may be my least favorite sentence in the world because it immediately transforms something I do naturally because I feel passion and life flowing through me when I do it into a mundane chore that needs to be handled.  And I have to wonder if the word is damaging other things I do as well.  I mean, I know I’m not likely to ever feel passionate about laundry.  But if I’m going to do laundry every week or so for most, if not all, of the rest of my life, maybe I could find a way to bring a little more fun into it.

So I’d really love to eliminate this word from my vocabulary and replace it with something that feels more positive.  I tried reclaiming it, but that didn’t work; somehow I never seem able to see should as anything but a drudgery.  And thus, it becomes relatively useless to me.

Because one thing I’ve learned is this: there is no value in me belittling myself for not doing more.  No value in my inner critic bandying about this hammer of should in a misguided attempt to motivate me.  I’ve heard there are people in the world who are motivated by this type of inner pressure, but it just made me want to give up.  It made everything feel hopeless because no matter how hard I worked, the verdict was already in: I would never be good enough.  I would never have done everything I should do.  In this mindset, depression was a cycle that was never long from repeating itself in my world.

I honestly believe my first step out of the darkness on my own* was to push back against this negative voice and its endless litany of shoulds.  Every time it would throw another failure my way, I would stop and ask it to tell me something I had done well or just something nice about myself.  Not to come up with an empty platitude, but something true even if it wasn’t relevant to the current conversation.  “Your house is a disaster and you should clean it,” might be answered with, “You have lovely hair.”  It didn’t really matter that they were so different – I wasn’t trying to refute the voice’s earlier claim by convincing myself that the house didn’t look that bad.  Nor did I spring into action to clean the house – this had been one of my previous reactions, continually convincing myself that if I just worked harder, dammit, I would be able to handle everything.

Instead of either of those things, this was a simple need to believe something – anything – good about myself.  Something I could wrap my arms around and hold.  And over time it became less trivial.  “I’m proud of you for handling xx today,” or “Way to go asking for what you need,” or “You’re a kind and thoughtful person.”  And I was actually starting to BE a kind person to the only person who stayed in my life for decades whom I was regularly unkind to: Myself.  That’s right – I didn’t treat my friends like this or my family or random strangers I met.  Somewhere along the way I had developed the belief that personal growth required me beating up on myself with brutal honesty.  Forgetting – even though I knew it when I spoke to everyone else in the world – that it is very possible to be both honest and kind.  That it’s possible to motivate myself through personal growth without ever uttering that dreadful word: should.


*This particular tactic was something I did on my own, but also in between sessions of therapy and surrounded by support from family and friends.  If you are dealing with depression, I believe doing something like this may help, but please don’t interpret it as the only step you need to take.  Seek any and all help that you need, and please remember that needing help doesn’t make you weak, it just makes you human.  And I’m sending you my love, because I know what it feels like where you are.

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