Thursday, October 21, 2010

Banning the Shoulds

Or: In Which I Become a Bossy Shrew

The word "should" should be stricken from our language. I despise that word, and I'll tell you why. Think about it. What are the things you tell yourself you should do, be, think, or say?

I should:

work out
go on a diet
get up earlier
read more
spend more time in prayer
serve my spouse
serve my kids
shop less
rake the leaves
clean the toilet
make a calendar
watch my mouth

Do you hear that? That's the sound of guilt smearing itself all over your good intentions. The guilt implied by the word "should" takes a simple task that probably has merit and makes it ugly and hard. It smears a thick layer of "idon'twanna" right on top of your perfectly normal thought sandwich.

When I hear the word "should" I feel like I'm getting in trouble. Like I've colored outside the lines, again, and now they have to call my parents.

Should says you are not good enough, thin enough, kind enough, tall enough. Should says you're wrong. You'll always be wrong. There is something about you that's Should spits on you and kicks you when you're down. Should causes sighs and lowered heads and discouragement.

I hate should. Should sucks.


I think sometimes should comes from a good place. It comes from a place that desires change. That wants to be better, that wants a challenge, that craves something new. It comes from that place inside us that says, "You know, life is pretty good. I'm clicking along. And, if I (did x) my life would be better because of y." And this is not wrong, per se. It is not wrong to want to grow, or change, or learn something.

Yeah, maybe a diet isn't a bad idea. Maybe showing a servant heart to your family wouldn't kill you. Maybe getting up earlier would make your morning less hectic. See? Those are good things. Should takes that good intention, that good desire and makes it a task rather than a act. A chore rather than a mere action.

Therefore I made the following change.

When I hear "should" in my head, I change it to "need." If it makes sense that way, I consider making the change. The shoulds become less about guilt and more about simple imperatives.

Listen to the difference:

"I should call the doctor and schedule my yearly." Blah. That says I've been remiss in taking care of my health.
"I need to call the doctor and schedule my yearly." Yes. Yes, I do. No judgment. Just fact.

But wait! There's more. The intent matters, too. "I need to serve my spouse so he'll serve me in return and I could really use a servant right now." Vastly different from "I need to serve my spouse so he can see how much I care for him."

I know two young mothers with wee ones at home. Both feel discouraged that they don't have more time to devote to working out. As one who was once a young mother, I get that. I get that having a moment or two alone makes a huge difference in your day. I worry, though, that regretting the time you don't get to yourself shifts focus. Because not only are the wee one days short, but not working out does not equal a bad mom or an unfit mother. Should they run more? Or do they need to run more? Or something else entirely?

We make a habit of telling ourselves that if we don't do what we should, then we are not good enough. Not a good enough mom, wife, woman, boss, employee, student, teacher, person. And our ideas of what we should be doing come from crazy external forces, like other people, who do not live our lives, who do not have our needs, who do not have our schedules. See that? Everyone is different and this is amazing and needs to be embraced, not copied. You do not have to be Suzy Homemaker the tennis playing wunderhousekeeper PhD student whose children are so well behaved people think they're zombies. You need to be you.

Whew. I got worked up there. (stepping off soapbox). See, what I want to say is you found your reason, right? Now get rid of your shoulds. We are not going to do shoulds anymore. They waste our time and energy. We are only going to do needs. If you NEED to do what you have a reason to do, then do it with all your heart. If you find yourself shoulding yourself, gently remind yourself. (Do not berate yourself for being stupidstupidstupidhowcouldiforgetthatagain?) Gently. Gently. We are learning here.

So, you want to run. You have your reason to run. Do you need to run? Is it important to you? Do you have the time, energy and effort to devote to it. Then get out there and do it.

Next time, more on gently correcting ourselves.


  1. This is one of the things my therapist is trying to beat out of me, in a loving Christ-like way of course. :) He encourages me to say "I would like..." or "I wish...". I feel like "need" still imposes guilt a little bit? To me it makes it sound necessary and if you don't get it done then you've failed at doing something that's important. Just thinking out loud. I'm seeing my therapist today, I'll see what he thinks! :)

    Great post! And your running is inspiring. Hope to see you next time I'm in Tulsa!

    Melissa Mitchell

  2. Melissa, you know I thought about that, and to you maybe need is another that can be gently withdrawn from your lexicon. For me, need makes it sound like just another job on my list of good things to do. I suppose one could say "want to" but to me that's like making room to not reach for a goal you set. At any rate, we agree that should is no fun! I hope to see you, too. I love hearing about all the fun books you're reading (for school). Makes me miss being a student.

  3. and how about: I want... not even need, but want: I want to eat more healthy, I want to do my yoga practice, I want to clean my house, I want to work my business. I want surgery on my knee -- oh wait, maybe not so much there. Just sayin'.

  4. Laureen, that is exactly what Melissa said. Frankly as long as it's not SHOULD then I'm happy with that.

  5. A colege friend of mine used to say, "Don't should on yourself." I thought she was brilliant.