Tuesday, November 3, 2009

So What's The Big Deal About "Shoulds"?

In the years that I have been talking with friends, family, and clients about "shoulds," I can't tell you how many times the idea of eliminating shoulds has been mocked and challenged.  And that's all great, I have a wonderful capacity for finding the humor in things, and I do encourage serious questions.  But what is often behind these comments is the thought, "Shoulds are insignificant, they have nothing to do with how I feel."  And here is where we disagree. 

What is missing in that argument is the recognition of how language shapes reality.  The words we use play a significant role in our perceptions, how we see ourselves, how we relate to others, and how we approach the world.

For example, let's say I don't get a job I've applied for.  I can use my words to tell myself and others, "I'm no good, I'm inadequate, I'll never get what I want."  And if I'm using those words to describe that situation, then I'm mostly likely going to experience depression, hopelessness, regret.  Now let's take the same scenario.  This time I come away from not getting a job by saying, "Although that's disappointing, it is no reflection on me, and it just means something better is waiting for me."  What is the experience that follows from saying that?  I will feel hope, optimism, peace.  And if I go into my next interview with hope, optimism, and peace, how much more likely is it I'll get considered for that job?

The same thing applies when we are broken-hearted.  You can say, "I'll never love again," or "I'll be okay with or without a partner."  It's that easy.  One results in hopelessness, the other results in empowerment.  Which one do your prefer? 

I've had people say to me, "But if I'm getting what I want, what's wrong with saying 'I should be getting what I want'?"  Nothing is inherently "wrong" about that.  If your experience is happy, joyful, fulfilling, and peaceful, and you have found a way to use "should" to get you there, then that is a beautiful thing.  Unfortunately, "shoulds" are usually in conflict with what is truly happening in reality.  The numerous comments people left under the "Give Up Your Should Day" post can attest to that. 

Language does shape human perception, it always has.  If it is your intention to have more happiness and joy in your life, then challenging common "shoulds" is one way to get there.  It may not be the only way, but it's a simple, fast, efficient tool for reducing stress and misery in the here and now.  My hope is that by writing Absolutely Should-less and keeping up this blog that we will all be reminded the power of language, and use that power to help ourselves and others.  


Michael D said...

I'm so proud.

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Halalcohol said...

You have a very nice blog. Almost all the other ones I see are about peoples' families, and aren't very interesting to read. Yours, however, connects with everyone. Unfortunately, your book isn't in any of my city's libraries, so I won't be able to read it.

I agree with you on the point that words play a significant role in our lives, but you stated that is easy to merely change your way of looking at things. While it is true that if you changed the way you think, everything would be better, the hard part is finding out how. This is where the simplicity ends. As a psychologist, you would probably know much more than I do about how we think, but based on my own experiences, I have found that it is much, much easier to prepare for the worst. If you are pessimistic, things will hurt less when they happen. It is hard to be filled with hope when trust has been wretched away from you.

I also think that in your examples, neither answer would be a good choice to believe in. The negative thinking path leads to depression, and the positive thinking path leads to apathy. Either way, both are lacking a critical point: a goal. With no goal to improve, the same thing will just happen again and again,. I think that both extremes should be balanced into something constructive or cautious. For the first example, I would have thought, "Why wasn't I wanted? Maybe I could improve on this, and hopefully then I'll be accepted."

This leads me to my next point. I would like to know your opinion on my statement: "negative 'shoulds' can be beneficial". I'm not sure if you've mentioned anything for or against this, but using "shoulds" is a good way of learning. It's the same thing as "learning from one's mistakes", which comes from looking at what you did and seeing why it didn't work, and then considering other possibilities that would have worked.

Halalcohol said...

Oh, I just saw the article on Productive Shoulds. Nevermind about my point, then.