The Sneaky Danger of "Should"


As we move through the world interacting with one another, we rely on symbols and codes to communicate our thoughts and intent. These can be found in the way we stand when talking to one another, in handshakes and hugs, and in the most powerful of tools – language. Our words act like a living bridge, expanding and shrinking to fit our needs and share them with others. It is over this bridge that we move and find ourselves moved to new places and ways of being. The true power of language, however, is seen not only in the ways that it shapes how others perceive us and our intentions, but also in how it defines the world around us that we see and interact with.

There is an academic theory known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that proposes that the words we use affect how we view the world. In my work, the shaping power of self-talk has been seen time and time again in the dissatisfaction and dis-ease that people bring into my office. The clear examples come from the people who tell themselves that they aren’t smart enough to build a good life for themselves, or that they aren’t strong enough to handle the pressures their lives are throwing them. Hidden deep in the shadows cast by these monster statements is a little weasel that nibbles away slowly at a person’s sense of self until it has immobilized them. This devious little word is should.

Sure, should can seem harmless enough. It pops up in your plans (“I should be able to make it to your house this weekend”), in your appraisals (“This should be easy enough”), and in your compliments (“You should be proud of yourself”). The reason that I think should is such a dangerous word is in the implication that seems to be attached to it. It implies obligation, often to an unseen someone. Should is a word that carries with it the need for an apology if you’re unable to accomplish what you’re talking about. In the sentences used as examples above, should sits like a splinter, ready to irritate and annoy if things don’t go the way you expect them to.

A great example of the hidden deviousness of should comes in a sentence most people are very familiar with – “I should really go to the gym.” It is true that exercise provides real mental and physical health benefits, but what that should is inserting into the meaning of your sentence is that you need to feel bad if you don’t go. Used in other sentences, should starts to take on more self-destructive overtones – “I should be able to figure this out”, or “This shouldn’t be this difficult”. In both instances, the implication is that something is wrong with you if you can’t fulfill the obligation implied by the should.

With so many little crevices to hide in, how can we work to eradicate the sneaky should from our vocabularies? What can we replace this little rascal with? There are several wonderful choices that offer a gentle way to say the same thing, depending on your needs. One easy option is simply could. I could go to the gym right now, I could stop eating now, or I could go to bed before midnight tonight. By using could, you open yourself up to possibilities to choose from that stand to benefit your life.  If could doesn’t seem to fit what you’re trying to say, you might be able to try the phrase would like to, as in I would like to get to the gym today, or I would like to have better eating habits.

There are times when should is appropriate to use, but they are few and far between. I would challenge you to try and count the number of times you use should throughout the day. Try and figure out what you’re really trying to say. Do you actually have an obligation to do what you’re using should for? If so, to whom? If you are unable to meet this obligation, who do you need to apologize to, and what for? You may be surprised how often you needlessly set yourself up to fall short of an ideal that no one is trying to enforce.