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finally defined

Dictionaries will take you in circles


When toxic (fuzzy) words are involved, like the words should, bad, good, fair, and unfair, dictionaries will take you in circles. They never ground these words in reality. They define one fuzzy word in terms of other fuzzy words. For example, one dictionary definition of "should" says that it "indicates obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions. It is often used to suggest that there is a correct or better course of action that a person needs to follow."


Obligation, duty, and correctness are also fuzzy words. Moreover, the word better is often used in a toxic, fuzzy way.

Indeed, there is an array of "distinctions" that share a common ground and mutually reinforce each other, masking their core significance. Here's a condensed list of such terms.

  • Bad

  • Betrayed

  • Deserving

  • Disloyal

  • Duty

  • Evil

  • Fair

  • Good

  • Improper

  • Improve

  • Just

  • Loser

  • Loyal

  • Not good enough

  • Obligation

  • Proper

  • Right

  • Sin

  • Underserving

  • Unfair

  • Unjust

  • Victim

  • Virtue

  • Wrong

Contrast the dictionary definition of "should" with definitions which are grounded in reality

Consider the definition of the word "dog."

A dog is a domesticated mammal of the species Canis lupus familiaris, which is a subspecies of the wolf. Dogs belong to the family Canidae, which also includes wolves, foxes, and other extant and extinct species of mammals.

From this definition we get information on how to distinguish a dog from a non-dog. Whereas, with the standard dictionary definition of "should," we have no definitive way to distinguish a should behavior from a non-should behavior.

However, when the essence of "should" is clearly distinguished, as I will do below, that can be done.

Many words are placeholders for more than one distinction

Special note: the word "should" is used in several distinct ways. For example, the sentence, "If you want to open the door, you should press this button first," means that, given a certain desired result (opening the door), a given action is needed to get that result. It is a statement that can be either verified or falsified.


I am specifically discussing the usage of "should" that suggests a sense of duty, obligation, propriety, justice, civility, or entitlement. This interpretation of "should" has, until now, lacked a definition that is grounded in reality and can, as such, be verified or falsified for any particular instance of its use.

"Should" defined


When we state that someone "should" think, believe, feel, or do something, we are claiming that a specific group of individuals (typically including the speaker) and often implying everybody will hold them in high regard if they comply. Conversely, this group is likely to express disapproval, avoid, or feel letdown if the individual doesn't act in the proposed manner.

In essence, when we accept a personal "should," we are, in fact, resisting a fear (dufear). This adopted "should" acts as a strategy to sidestep the fear of appearing inadequate in front of others. One of the roles of a "should" is to obscure this reality even from us because if we become aware of it, the main advantage (the avoidance of fear) would be compromised.

To illustrate...

In a more extreme illustration, individuals, driven by an obligation (a "should"), may sacrifice their lives on the battleground to maintain a favorable image and avoid the shame of being perceived negatively by others, an act often referred to as "upholding honor".

My mother, when she told her mother that she was going to leave my father, ended up backing down (for another five miserable years before she finally did leave him), when her mother replied with, "You can't leave him, Dorothy. He needs you." Her resisted fear of looking badly to her mother (if she did something her mother thought she shouldn't do) is a stellar example of how toxic shoulds operate and dominate our lives.

Examples of how the glasses of shoulds inform our lives

Let's delve into certain "shoulds" that are frequently verbalized or held as beliefs. "Shoulds" can also manifest as an integral component of the meaning in other words, such as "obligation."

  • "You should've been in bed by now." (a parent to their child).

  • "You should obey your parents."

  • "You should show respect to your teachers."

  • "You shouldn't be a bully."

  • "You have obligations to your country."

  • "You have a duty to take care of your family."

  • "You should pay your taxes."

  • "You shouldn't hate your sister."

  • "You should vote."

  • "You should be considerate of the feelings of others."

  • "You should stay married."

  • "You shouldn't kill yourself."

  • "You shouldn't be a racist."

  • "You should believe in God."

When individuals make such assertions, besides suggesting that approval, disapproval, or perhaps disappointment will be the outcome, they might also imply that specific negative consequences could arise if the advised action - the "should" - is not pursued.

Take the statement "You shouldn't be a bully" as an example. The individual making this assertion may be implying that such behaviors could lead to severe consequences like expulsion from school, among other undesirable outcomes. If so, then this assertive aspects of the verbalization is amenable to verification or refutation. However, the primary implication of such statements revolves around the potential for approval or disapproval from certain people, irrespective of any additional favorable or unfavorable actions these people might take that could impact the person in question.

Our most fundamental fear

It's built into our remnant DNA, accumulated during the millions of years we lived in small tribes of less than a hundred people where approval/disapproval from members of our tribe could often mean life or death.

Our most fundamental concern is: "I want you to approve of (admire, respect, love, like, be attracted to) me" or even more importantly, "I don't want you to disapprove of (be disappointed in, despise, disrespect, hate, dislike, ignore, shun) me."

Who is the "you"?

The "you" that we are concerned about in a given circumstance could be very specific, like it was with my mother who was attached to her's mother's approval. Or it can be quite generalized. There are few of us who could stroll naked casually down a busy street with strangers passing by, gawking at us. The "you" is commonly those groups around us whom we identify with: fellow liberals or conservatives, church members, our colleagues at work, the citizens of our country, or fellow vegans. 

It's build into our DNA: it's not going away...

I fairly often hear someone say, "I don't care what others think of me." If I am allowed to probe, I can almost always find instances with that person where that isn't totally true for them. Or, to the extant that it is, it's a reaction against caring what others think. This proves the point that they do. 

Also, it's not a good idea to not be concerned about what (certain) others think or may think about us. To have the best possible relationships with others, it's important to be concerned about and to even manage how we occur for others. See How you occur for others.

The opportunity here in getting clear about the real meaning of shoulds is to make them unresisted fears so that we can assess more clearly an appropriate response to those fears instead of going with the default reactions of either obeying the shoulds or rebelling against them without recognizing the hidden cause of us believing in those shoulds..

The opportunities for choosing courage

Instead of being locked into our default positions of "having to look good" or rebelling against it, we can get in touch we our fears of not looking good and evaluate the costs, benefits, risks, and possibilities, both short-term and long-term for ourselves and for our relationships with others, which includes the options of being willing to take the risks and costs of looking bad. Then, if we decide that it makes sense to take those risks, we then take ourselves through the four steps of choosing courage, honoring ourselves for the courage to embrace the energy of ours fear and to take those risks.

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