by Shahad Alzaidan
Think of a moment in your life where you felt so alive and full of joy. There are moments when we are so lit up, that we can almost quite literally see ourselves beaming. You’ll recognize this when people talk about something they love — their eyes brighten, their breath shifts and bliss seems to radiate from their face. It’s in this state that we are quintessentially ourselves. Mindful practices bring us closer to that essence of ourselves and help us find ways to integrate that truth into our everyday actions.
One of the benefits of mindful living is becoming more aware of our internal and external dialogues. In observing the words we choose to express ourselves, one word stood out as an unsuspecting offender to authentic living: should. When combined into a statement, this small but mighty proclamation carries an abundance of undesirable consequences.
What is Should?
Should-statements fall under the umbrella of cognitive distortions, a term derived from cognitive-behavioral theory and practice. It denotes a biased way humans perceive themselves and others. These should-statements are so commonplace that unless you are deliberately on the lookout for them, the subtle ways they interweave into everyday discourse means they often go unnoticed. It is significant to differentiate between the “should” we use in daily speech, versus the “should” that delineates morality. Absolutely, there are things we should ethically do as human beings, that is not the problematic should we are discussing here. The problematic should is the one that has been adopted into everyday conversation to account for our daily choices and state of being. I should have a perfectly organized home. I should have a flatter stomach. I should be over this by now. These types of should-statements reflect self-defeating beliefs, often resulting in a multitude of negative states of being, including heightened fear, anxiety, and worry. Should-statements rooted in this negative thinking pattern fuel feelings of inadequacy, and prevent us from living more fulfilling and authentic lives.
Should is based on the expectations of others. When you think you should do or say something, it is often wrapped up in what we think other individuals deem as the acceptable way of being. Furthermore, should is based on our own perceptions of what we think we must be. These perceptions stem from being constantly inundated with intense external pressures telling us that we must look, act, and feel certain ways, despite how we actually are and why we came to be.
Should is guilt-ridden and fueled by shame. At its core, should tells us that we are not enough. It is an admittance of a desire for a reality that is different from the one we are currently living in. When we exclaim that we should be doing something, we are admitting that an action is already occurring, but that an alternative action performed by a more perfect, flawless version of ourselves ought to be taking its place instead. Ultimately, should-statements can be self-deprecating, leaving little room for compassion and self-acceptance.
Should is contagious. When we get used to using should-statements toward ourselves, it becomes more likely that we will use them against others. This seats us in a place of unwarranted judgment, as telling another person that they should be doing something is principally a reflection of our own values and expectations of them, not theirs. Using should-statements in this manner inappropriately entitles us to force our opinions upon others, without any empathy or understanding. In much the same way that our worth does not diminish by the inability of others to see it, our responsibilities and choices are
not to be measured by another person’s set of
Moving Past Should
Luckily, we are not powerless against the influence of should. The next time you or someone else claims that you “should” be doing something, pause for a moment, and ask yourself, “Why?” Why should you do that thing? Inquire, not in a defensive manner, but in a gentle nudging way to discover what lies beneath the should-statement, and what motivating force fuels it. It is in this questioning and mindful pausing that we can make an alternative choice, perhaps considering the use of “could” or “would like to” instead. Suddenly, a harsh “I should have done better”, turns into a much more compassionate “I would have liked to have done better, but I did the best I could within the circumstances I was in”. Becoming aware of the perils of should does not mean you will suddenly fall into a Utopian, should-free existence. Rather, by recognizing how often we “should” ourselves, we can dismantle some of the thought patterns that do not serve us, resulting in a heightened ability to build kinder relationships to ourselves