Feeling guilty?

I have a personal vendetta with the word “should”. I’ve been battling with its’ influence for over 10 years consciously, and have struggled with it for most of my life. Maybe you too have been in the same boat, if not consciously then unconsciously. In the moments I was feeling frustrated I would say that “should’s” ruin lives. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration although in reality, “should” and “should not’s” truly impact our lives to the core.

The impact of words

We make decisions (important ones) around all sorts of “should” and “should not’s”. As a simple example, when someone says “I should call my parents every week” they create an expectation, which can be felt as unreasonable, and if unmet, leads to feelings of guilt; maybe you feel like you’re a bad son should you not call each week. You feel guilty; maybe you procrastinate, and then feel guilty again while the pattern goes round and round. How about the times you convince yourself that you “should” say yes to some request because if you don’t, you fear you won’t be liked as much?

The meaning behind the meaning

“Should” is an umbrella for unrealistic and unreasonable expectations that you hold about yourself. Each time you don’t rise up to those expectations, you feel frustrated with yourself, guilty because you “should” have been able to succeed, and feel like you’ve failed.

We learn to “should” from a very early age and over time, become so immersed in it that we don’t often recognize it for what it is: an impediment of us being who we are, that promotes guilt and with it low self-esteem.

I want to note here that this is not a universal rule, by any means. Some “should’s” are useful: when you say “I shouldn’t harm people”, well, “should not” here is appropriate.

The “should” and “should not’s” I’m focused on here are rooted in your personal values and beliefs, rather than generic morality. They are those that leave emotional scars upon your psyche and can be closely tied to feelings of insecurity, fear, depression, and anxiety. They are the ones you use in day to day situations, in conversations with others and, even more, in conversations with yourself.

Self awareness

Pay attention to the times you use the words “should” and “should not” and try to figure out what you’re really telling yourself and how you make yourself feel as a result of it. As adults, we become masters of our own deceit, and we’re able to be cruel and judgmental with ourselves without even realizing it. Keep an eye out for guilt, because that’s what will probably stand out. If you’re unable to catch yourself in the moment, notice the guilt and work your way back to figure out if this is the result of imposing “should/should not” onto yourself.

Try to find a substitute word for it, something that actually reflects your sentiments or at least helps clarify them. Use “could” instead and see how one well chosen word can change and rearrange your perspective. In the example above, the changed version will be “I could call my parents every week”. It does not imply a judgment about you (bad son) and rather than creating an expectation, you are in fact creating a possibility and another choice.

What is your experience with the underlying meaning of “should” and “should not”?