Finish this sentence: I should …

Maybe you should be cleaning the house.

Maybe you should be taking the dog for a walk.

Maybe you should be spending more time with your kids.

OK, let’s run with that one.

You should spend time with your kids.

That’s what you’re thinking while you look at the clock and realize it’s getting closer to 5 p.m.

But you have this, this and this to do to reach your deliverables, or to match your entrepreneurial goals for the month.

So you pack up your laptop and head home, because you should be spending more time with your kids.

You compromise by checking your email on your phone through dinner and by hammering away on the keyboard while you watch a movie with the little rugrats.

Now you’re not giving your full attention to either your kids or your work.

You’re straddling the fence.

“Should” belongs to the shaming family

Any time you tell yourself you “should” be doing something, you’re speeding down the highway of guilt, heading for Shameville.

Whatever task you think you “should” be doing makes your current activity wrong.

You start to believe you should be able to handle it all, you should be able to get it all done and, if you were only better at handling life, you should be able to get your shit together.

Now you feel incompetent and incapable.

Oh, you know those feelings? Yes, they’re also called shame.

American psychologist Clayton Barbeau coined the term “shoulding yourself.” (Another psychologist, Albert Ellis, called it “musterbation.”)

College professor John Tagg wrote that both terms cover the act of “telling yourself you have an obligation to do something different from what you are doing.”

We get into trouble shoulding ourselves when it takes the form of automatic thought. In this form, the “should” comes to us as an abstract, universal obligation such that if we don’t do what we “should” do we are wrong and feel guilty. Guilt is an important and real experience. But it is a response to moral failure. To feel guilty about our personal choices which have no long-term effects is to trivialize guilt. And that is dangerous.

Replace “should” with “could”

It’s time to change your inner dialogue, just like we do with body image and imposter syndrome.

We’re telling ourselves we aren’t good enough and we are continuously trying to prove our value.

And, thus, we’re creating levels of stress for ourselves that bring us to the brink of burnout.

Try this exercise:

Give a friend permission to reflect back to you every time she hears you say the word “should.” When she catches you, she says, “You mean ‘could,’ huh?”

(I had a friend do this for me and, after one day, I was surprised by how many times I said it.)

When we replace the word “should” with “could,” we give ourselves permission to make a choice.

You start to prioritize your tasks.

You come to a place where you make a decision.

And you put yourself in control of your experience.

If we go back to the original example of “should spend more time with the kids,” we could give work one more hour of focused time and then we could spend one hour of focused time with the family. Or vice versa.

You’re now creating an action path.

And you’re now satisfying both parts of you, instead of not getting any satisfaction out of a mediocre attempt to do both activities at the same time.

The stress of “should”

We humans are designed to handle stress, and our bodies are designed to let us know when it’s becoming too much.

We start to:

  • Roll our eyes during conversations
  • Sigh at the mere thought of doing something
  • Become angry at the drop of a hat

We allow ourselves to pile on task after task, always wanting to please others or prove to them or ourselves that we can handle anything and everything.

The funny thing is, we give ourselves permission to recover from major stressful events, such as death and grieving, childbirth, serious illness, job loss and so on.

We don’t give ourselves permission to recover from the chronic, low-grade everyday stuff that piles up and pushes us to the edge.

That’s what “should” does.

We should answer those emails, but they keep coming in, demanding our attention and keeping us away from that deadline or this coffee break or time with the kids.

We get ourselves on the hamster wheel and we don’t know how to get off.

We could schedule blocks of time into our day to pay attention to email and only email, leaving ourselves plenty of other time to focus on everything else.

We could turn off the notifications on our smartphone to allow us that space.

We could filter some emails into The Someday File and get to them when we can.

Once we start thinking about the things we can do instead of should, we start to get a better idea of who we are and what we want.

That, my friends, is clarity, which allows us to make better decisions and catapult into the life we really want.

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