I’m beginning to believe that “should” is the most destructive word in the English language. More often than not, a person’s suffering is nailed down with “should.” Or “shouldn’t,” of course.
I must grant it a place of value, when it comes to teaching small children social behavior, and even, perhaps, in keeping them safe. One shouldn’t run out into traffic. And one should speak courteously to all, no matter what feelings they induce. One should obey the law.
But when we come to emotions, it’s a killer. It creates a deep conflict if you believe you should feel something you don’t:
“I should always love my mother.” Really? Even when she’s just blamed you for ruining her life by being born? Or maybe she’s just punished you for something your brother did? Should you always love your mother, even if she doesn’t love you? That’s tragic, but all too often true.
“You should forgive your enemies.” That’s probably a good idea, for your own health, and in the long run. But not before you’ve hated them for hurting you. The best way to get stuck in resentment is to “forgive” before you’ve let yourself experience all the feelings brought up by the hurt.
How about just plain old, “you shouldn’t feel that way”? How often does a friend think she’s helping you out, by saying that? Maybe you’ve misunderstood her intent, or maybe you’re feeling something politically incorrect. Maybe you’re even mad at yourself for something beyond your control! But you feel the way you feel, and trying to feel something you don’t -- even something you wish you could feel -- is worse than futile.
Why worse than futile? Because emotions naturally flow. Many of them take under 20 seconds to pass, if I just feel them fully and let go of them. But if I fight them, or decide I should be feeling something else, they get stuck in me. Emotions stuck in me for long enough sour and turn into something much uglier, like resentment. I can hate my husband for disappointing me -- really hate him -- and then remember in the next moment that I love him, too. If I don’t let myself have my hate, I very likely could bring up that disappointment six months from now -- and now it looks more like “You never do anything I want!”
There’s another use of “should” that plays into the effort to live life as we’d like to. This is the gray area between emotions and actions, for example, “I should clean the kitchen.” I can believe that the kitchen needs cleaning, and it may be that you’re not doing any other onerous task at this moment, but if this “should” prevents you from enjoying another activity, a life-enhancing activity, I’m not so sure it will help you get that desired life.
I all too often see people who whip themselves mercilessly with the things they “should” do, or “should” feel, if they want to be “good.” Too much “should” can make you forget that you’re just another human being, with needs and flaws, who makes mistakes, and who has an amazing, thrilling, delightful ability to enjoy your life.
We all do it, to some extent. It’s built in to the desire to be in charge of ourselves and to control the world around us. I have found that, if you are one of those who over-uses “should,” substituting “could” can help. Then “I should clean the kitchen” becomes “I could clean the kitchen,” and “I shouldn’t be glum” becomes “I could find something to enjoy.”
Well, I just told myself I should go do an errand. I don’t think I’m going to stop using that word anytime soon. I could have said to myself, “this would be a good time to…” But habit is habit, and training is training, and I’m not going to “should” on myself for telling myself I “should.”