When talking about people, interpersonal communication and internal self-talk, "should" is what I would consider to be a dirty word. It also can roll-off-the-tongue without anyone taking notice of what it really means. "You should get a haircut." "You should be working longer hours." "You should text me back when I text you." "You shouldn't do that." There are so many “shoulds” that it can be exhausting trying to keep track of and heed them all. AND why should you? I would argue that you never have to. That is my clearly stated opinion and so is the rest of this article.
"Should" is a hidden opinion that is directed at someone to get them to comply or fall in-line. The person that says the should-statement is essentially shirking responsibility for declaring their own wants and needs with clarity and is not directly asking for them. Rather, the should-statement-maker is placing pressure on the other person to do something – usually what the should-statement-maker thinks is right. The recipient of the should-statement may not recognise the hidden opinion as such and also may not realise that he or she actually has a choice in either taking it on board or discarding it.
For example, a child may hear their parents repeatedly say "You should get good grades in school". To the child it ends up feeling like an ultimatum, demand or out-of-place comment. If this is the message that the child receives, then he or she may do schoolwork to get the grades but not in response to an internal hunger for knowledge or self-support in his or her personal scholastic endeavours. Rather, the child may learn that he or she will receive attention and praise from their parents if they do the schoolwork (or perhaps respite from criticism). An alternative way of speaking to a child about grades without a disguised opinion or directive is to offer the reason to pursue good grades in school as an opinion and rationale based on your experiences in life. It can be a point for the child to consider when making his or her schoolwork-related decisions.
There are two main reasons why awareness of should-statements is important. First, when "shoulds" come from all directions at a person, they are often not consistent with his or her unique interests and desires, rather they are representing the other people. This can cause extreme confusion for the recipient about how he or she acts or behaves in the world. It can also feel like pressure for the recipient to make choices in life that are not consistent with his or her deepest desires or values. Second, too many "shoulds" coming from outside sources can develop into internally-generated, semi-automated "shoulds". For example “I should be exercising more”, “I should help my brother out more”, or “I shouldn’t be selfish”. If a person cannot live up to the strongly-stated and directed expectations that are conveyed in should-statements, whether externally or internally-driven, then grief, sadness and disappointment are some of the emotions that a person can experience. Depression can set-in and unhealthy functioning can develop.
I find it is helpful to draw attention to the word "should" when it pops up and to recognise it for what it is: a hidden - and perhaps unwanted, opinion. If you realise that you are dealing with an opinion then it is much easier to treat it as such. You may feel more liberated to think about it and ask how it fits for you, Is it something you want or is it consistent with your own personal goals or values? If it does not fit for you then discard it. If it seems to fit, take it on board, perhaps for a test-drive and see how it resonates with you.
A healthy experiment is to take a should-statement and try to say it in another way. Try using two or three sentences instead of one and assign the correct person: “I…”, “you…” or “John....” For example, a person might hear “You should write your reports differently” (should-statement) versus “I have an opinion about the reports that you author. I would like to see you write them in a way that is more consistent with my style and what I think is most effective” (translation). Often, whole new meanings emerge when we translate the should-statement. What is needed and who needs it also becomes clearer. Someone telling another person that they “should do something” is oftentimes more about what that person’s individual wants are - not those of the recipient of the should-statement.
If you are at work and are offering your opinion on the direction of a project or how to meet a goal or a deadline, then “should” may fit as a short-cut way of communicating what is your opinion or your best judgment. However, if you have the time to explain that your perspective or position is such that you advocate pursuit of a particular option, then it can end up sounding more palatable to your colleagues and supervisors than “We should do this or that”. A translation of the should-statement to "I think building the facility this way is the most cost effective option and I am a firm advocate of this plan" is simply clearer and keeps the door open for further discussion.
If you are hoping to feel more satisfied in life and wish to facilitate making your inner desires reality rather than dreams, then it is my opinion that should-statements can get in the way. From my perspective, calling-out a should-statement helps us to navigate through life with more satisfaction and the potential for rich meaning - whether that should-statement comes from someone else or from within your own mind.
Blogging about mental health topics that are relevant to counselling and psychotherapy. All material is authored by Cori Lambert unless explicitly stated otherwise. Authentic Consulting and Counselling is located in West Perth, Greater Perth Area.
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