Cyanide for the mouth (that can taste like candy)
“Should” and “should not” are the most deadly and pervasive toxic words in the English language (as well as for their synonyms as they occur in any other language).
Benign ways to use "should"
Before we examine their toxicity, let’s note the ways in which should (and should not) can be used benignly.
To get the results you want
“You should put the soap in before you start the washing machine.” This type of should simply implies that, in order to get the desired washing results, you need to do things in a certain order.
“You should be able to catch the train on time.” This should implies that something is probable for you, given the effort.
“If you should change your mind, I’ll be waiting for you.” This should indicates something that will be available to you under certain conditions.
Sometimes the use of the word “should” can be ambiguous, with some interpretations benign and others toxic. “I think I should exercise tomorrow.” Benignly, this means either “I intend to exercise tomorrow, but, if I don’t, that will be fine with me.” or “If I exercise tomorrow, I will get some results I want.” Toxically, it means, “If I don’t exercise tomorrow, I will blame myself.”
From time to time, you may find a few other benign uses of the word “should."
Meet the cyanide of toxic words
The toxic use of “should” and “should not” involves actual or potential blame or criticism, either 1) towards oneself or 2) towards others or 3) towards the universe or God.
“You should keep your promises.”
“You shouldn’t cheat on your wife.”
“I should do my homework.”
“You should fight for your country.”
“You shouldn’t swear in front of your grandmother.”
“I should get what I deserve.”
“Life should be fair.”
Should or shouldn't is implicit in most toxic words
Should is packaged inside of many other toxic words.
Here are several examples:
Caring: You should be caring.
Deserve: People should get what they deserve.
Duty: You should fulfill your duty.
Failure: You should not fail.
Good: You should be good.
Honest: People should be honest.
Integrity: You should have integrity.
Kind: You should be kind.
Marriage: You should stay married.
Persistent: You should be persistent.
Quit: You shouldn't quit.
Selfish: You shouldn’t be selfish.
Taker: You shouldn’t be a taker.
Should is verbal violence...it sets us up to lose
In a certain sense, should has no meaning other than to indicate that one or more people (or God) will blame whoever does not do what they (or you) want you to do. Should is verbal violence. Should also resists (fights with) reality. It puts us at odds either with ourselves or with others.
Should assaults the integrity within ourselves
Let’s take one example and tease it out.
Imagine that I said to you, “You should keep your promise to exercise today.” Spoken toxically, this means, “I and/or others will blame you if you don’t exercise today and I am letting you know this.” The use of should or shouldn't perpetuates the battle between Now and Next. My Next is hoping for cooperation with your Next by threatening your Now with blame if you don’t exercise today. It shows lack of consideration and respect for what your Now may want and need.
Should assaults our integrity with others
Should not only perpetuates the Now-Next wars, it also adds fire to the Oneself-Others feud. “You shouldn’t be so selfish; you should think of my feelings.” This should continues the Oneself-Others conflicts by saying that your self-interests should be sacrificed to my self-interests, instead of looking for ways for our self-interests to work together, both short-term and long-term.
Shoulding ourselves and others together
These are examples of shoulding others. We would not should others unless we were shoulding ourselves. We treat others as we treat ourselves.
Moreover, many shoulds are never spoken; they remain on the level of thoughts and thereby poison our lives silently, with no need to be spoken in order to pollute our lives.
Shoulding blinds us to better choices
In addition to the damage that shoulding causes by inflicting blame on ourselves and others, shoulding also creates damage by blinding us. It blinds us to the costs and risks of following our shoulds as well as the benefits of alternatives that exist to our shoulds.
Shoulding traps in the past
When we should/shouldn't, we are looking for someone to blame, even for someone to be punished (including ourselves). We live in the fantasy that somehow we think that shoulding will make our future better. We create defense in others and in ourselves, making it problematic to use curiosity to explore and uncover all the factors that contributed (from every source) to the unwanted result. It makes it problematic to use partnership and creativity to find ways to make it more likely to have better results in our future.
Why do we should?
Why do we should ourselves and others? What benefits are we trying to get with our shoulding? Certainly, shoulding is often a deeply ingrained habit that has strong support from family, media, and culture. But, unless it did not provide (at least seemingly) ongoing benefits, the habit would be easy to break.
Shoulding can live only in a world lacking integrity
Shoulding lives in the world in which we believe that our Now must be sacrificed to our Next. It lives in the world in which we believe that our Oneself must be sacrificed to our Others. As long as we believe in these types of sacrifice, as long as we identify ourselves as our Next and our Others at the exclusion of our Now and our Oneself, our shoulding will continue. As long as we remain convinced there are good guys and bad guys, we must should ourselves and others in order to help Next (our good guy) win against Now (our bad guy) and for Others (another good guy) win against Oneself (the other bad guy). Otherwise, we believe, the world and our life will fall apart.
Shoulding gives us a (false) sense of power or control
It makes us feel safer. We act as if our should or our shouldn't can make ourselves or others behave a certain way. It can even be used to deflect or diminish other people's possible criticism ("I know I should do better").
Should had a stranglehold on my mother
Here’s a big example of should-induced blindness that had a major impact on my life: My mother knew that she made a mistake in marrying my father within two days of their marriage. But she believed that she should be persistent. She was persistently married for 41 years to a man she didn't love and didn't respect before she finally got divorced. After my mother finally left my father, every time I spoke with her, she would exclaim, “Why didn’t you tell me how happy I would be without him!?”
She was blind to the benefits, costs, and risks of the options available to her
Because of her should of persistence, my mother was blinded to the costs and risks that she (and others around her) incurred because she remained married to my father. She also kept herself in the dark about all the better alternatives available to her that involved not being married to my father. Her shoulds blinded her from exploring these alternatives. Shoulding keeps us in a dark, making it difficult to the navigate the world and have the best relationships with others. Without shoulds and should nots, our abilities to see and evaluate the opportunities, possibilities, and options of life are greatly enhanced.
But how can we un-should ourselves?
Freshen up your mouth
As a first step, freshen up your mouth. Whenever you want or intend something to be a certain way, don’t use the word “should” (or its synonyms). You might say, instead, things like this:
“I want this to happen.”
“I intend this to happen and I will take action to support that.”
“I request that you do this.”
“I think the country could be better off, if the president did this.”
“I invite you to do that.”
“I notice that I am frightened that will not happen.”
“If you do this for me, I will do that for you."
Use the NNI and OOI toolkits
Most fundamentally, however, shoulding will fade away naturally as you create and maintain integrity, both NNI and OOI. Use the NNI toolkit and the OOI toolkit to support this process. “How can Now and Next both win in this circumstance?” This is the question that is answered in the NNI toolkit. “How can my Oneself and my Others both win in this situation?” This is the question that is answered in the OOI toolkit. We need to ask one or both of these questions whenever shoulding raises its ugly head.
Make your shoulds align with reality
A final method to undo shoulding is to continue to use the word “should,” but only in a new way that aligns with reality. Here are examples.
If you find yourself being lazy, then say, “I should be lazy.” (since you are lazy right now)
If you notice you are a workaholic, say, “I should be a workaholic.” (since you are a workaholic right now)
If your friend lied to you, then say, “My friend should lie to me.” (since that is what your friend did at least once)
If your spouse slept with someone else, then say, “My spouse should have slept with someone else.” (since that is what your spouse did)
If you weigh 300 pounds, then say, “I should weigh 300 pounds.” (since that is what you weigh now)
These shoulds in no way limit you in taking actions to make changes. In fact, they lay the helpful groundwork of accepting where you and others are, which is the perfect place to make changes from.
Question the fairy tales
As long as we believe in the belligerent fairy tales of the shoulds and should nots, told by the wicked witches and warlocks of discord, we will continue to suffer the tortures of unhappy relationships, both with ourselves and with others.
If you want a full course in un-shoulding,
Now that you've had a short course in toxic words, go through the list of word at the beginning of this link again and consider how each one might be used toxically.