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Should You Use This Word? It Decreases Your Effectiveness

Feeling stuck in a bad job, relationship, or situation? Beware of this word!

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7 Ways to Get Yourself Unstuck
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Want a quick upgrade to the way you communicate with yourself, with work colleagues, and in your love relationships? Delete the word should from your vocabulary. Should may occasionally give good guidance. More often, it sets unrealistic expectations. Should induces guilt, and decreases your desire to do what you otherwise might want to do.

Sure you should take good care of your children and you should pay your bills on time. Most of the time though when you use the word should, this common but potently dis-empowering word will end up undermining you.

I should ...

A strange thing happens when you use the word should, as in “I should have…” or “You should …” Should undermines your ability to do what you want to do. Here’s how.

As a therapist I sometimes use a technique called muscle testing, also known as muscle kinesiology. This technique assess if a person is comfortable or stressed. If your emotional state is at peace, you would easily be able to hold your arm out straight, parallel to the floor. If I then were to push your arm slightly, your arm would stay extended. By contrast, if you feel emotionally stressed, my slight push on your arm would cause your arm to flop down.

I recall using muscle testing once with a professional football player, a member of Denver’s Broncos team. When this super-strong young man was talking normally to me, and I asked him please to extend his arm, there was no amount of pressure that I could exert that would cause that arm, with its bulging muscles, to fall. By contrast, when I asked the football player to think about a situation that had been disturbing for him and then barely touched his outstretched arm, boom, his arm fell. His muscles turned to marshmallows.

Enter the word should.

When I told my football player to repeat the following sentences after me, and after each sentence tested his arm, what do you think happened?

1. “I would like to visit my grandmother.”

2. “I could visit my grandmother.”

3. “I should visit my grandmother.”

4. “I have to visit my grandmother.”

My football player’s muscles stayed rock-strong with the first two sentences. In the third, by contrast, the word should turned his muscles to marshmallow-mode. His arm dropped with my slightest touch.

When I repeated this experiment with a colleague, I also tested a fourth sentence, a sentence with have to. What do you think was the impact of this phrase?

If you guessed that have to would work the same as should, melting the muscles into a powerless state, you guessed right.

What prescriptions follow from this observation about the impacts of the word should?

Change the letters sh to a c, changing “I should …” to “I could …”

Alternatively, change the sh in should to w as in would like to….

Here’s an example.

In a recent workshop on psychotherapy, Betty volunteered to demo muscle testing on an issue about which she felt frustrated. Betty tended to procrastinate. Her procrastination was causing her to feel anxious because she couldn’t get herself to sit down and complete her tax forms, even with a deadline looming just ahead. The more angrily Betty told herself “You really should get those taxes done right now!”, the less she was able to sit herself at her desk and get started.

Betty then switched to “I could get those taxes done now. In fact, I really would like to do them now.”

I asked Betty what she felt when she used the word should as she told herself to do her taxes.

Betty said, should induced a feeling of guilt. It created anxiety. It conveyed a sense that someone or something outside of herself was trying to control her, to tell her what to do, triggering her rebellious nature: If I have to, then I won’t. Should also created a generic feeling of stress.

A backwards-looking should also felt problematic to Betty. "I should have done that yesterday" invited guilt and depression, blocking learning.

Fortunately, the negative energies of a past-tense should can be eased with a follow-up thought: "Yes, I could have done that yesterday, and at the same time I enjoyed going outside to enjoy the sunshine instead."

Betty experimented with eliminating the world should by switching it to could or would like to.

When Betty said to herself, “I could do my taxes now…” Or “I would like to just sit down and get them down right now…”, she felt positively motivated. Best of all, she could see herself sitting right down and finishing the forms!

In the following example, Judy, a woman suffering from a relapse with an auto-immune disease, directed shoulds toward her husband Aaron.

Judy thought to herself, “I’ve been sick all week. He really should be helping me in the house.” Her should led Judy to feel entitled to Aaron’s help, and therefore angry at his unwillingness to pitch in.

When Judy spoke with Aaron using should the results proved even more unproductive. “I really do think you should be helping me more when I’m sick like this,” she said sadly to her husband. Aaron stomped off, his feelings hurt. By using the word "should," Judy had inadvertently raised the tensions of anger in the household.

Judy tried a switch to could and would like. “If Aaron could help me out more,” she thought to herself, “I would love that.” Her anger, generated by the prior should and the sense of entitlement it had generated, melted away.

Judy sighed, and then smiled fondly. “The reality is that when Aaron comes home from work he’s exhausted. He needs to take a nap. I do appreciate that he works very hard in his landscaping business, which keeps us afloat financially."

And the moral of the should story is …

When you feel tempted to say should, either to yourself or to others, change the sh to c or w. That is, change should to could or would like to.

  • Eliminating shoulds toward yourself enables you to stay personally empowered.
  • Eliminating shoulds directed toward others blocks the inappropriate sense of entitlement that provokes anger both within you and between you and others.

In sum, could and would like to sustain personal well-being and positive relationships.

A should experience from a reader

Here's one final illustrative anecdote shared by a reader of this article:

"Last night at a meeting of my women's group I suggested, "Do you think one of us should call Veronica since she hasn't joined us for the last several weeks?"

"To my surprise, the responses all sounded defensive: 'Well I've already tried.' and 'I sent an email to her last week and she never responded." I could feel the tension in their stiffened body language and irritated voices.

"So, having read this article I then switched my wording: "Would anyone like to try to contact Veronica again?" Immediately two of the women willingly volunteered to call her. 'Sure, I'd be glad to check on her.' 'I hope she's ok.' ' I do want to be sure that she still feels welcomed here.' "

Thank you's to this reader for sharing....

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD Please contact me for permission before copying this article.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Denver and graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of the book on therapy called From Conflict to Resolution. For couples, Dr. Heitler has written The Power of Two and which teach the skills for marriage success.

(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Dr. Heitler most recently has written the book and website Prescription Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More.

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