When I was in therapy school, I noticed others around me hunting “shoulds” with a vengeance. It seemed to be common knowledge among therapists that the word “should” was damaging. So I began to catch myself and my clients when saying the “s” word. At first, I didn’t understand why a simple word could be so harmful, but now I’m beginning to understand. I’ve found that, like many things, the danger is not only in the word itself, but what it reveals. Take, for example, this simple statement:

“I should exercise more.”

What could be so harmful about a statement like this? After all, it reveals something I desire to do, and “shoulding” myself might motivate me enough to do it. The problem with this is two-fold:

1. It is punishment-based motivation

2. It reveals resistance to the task and makes for an unpleasant process.

Punishment-Based Motivation

Do you know that behavior change is more effective when associated with positive reinforcement rather than punishment? When it comes to training dogs, children, and even ourselves, positive reinforcement has a greater, more positive, and longer-lasting impact. The statement above, when you look closer, carries guilt within it. Guilt, in this case, is a self-enforced form of punishment. The underlying meaning could be “I should exercise more or else…,” or “I should exercise more because I’m a fat slob.”

Guilt and other forms of punishment can be powerful and effective motivators, but they are also a source of unnecessary suffering. The months when I dragged myself to the gym against my own will because I was unsatisfied with my body shape were hellish and rife with resistance. I was doing it in spite of what I wanted to do, not because of it. Even if it achieved the desired result, I was guilt-tripping myself and hating every moment of it.

It Reveals Resistance and Makes for an Unpleasant Process

I started catching myself in my shoulds, and then they began to morph into something seemingly innocuous: “need to’s.”

“I should exercise more” became “I need to exercise more.”

The “should” is gone! Problem solved, right? Not quite. You see, anything I verbalize that I “need to do” may not feel like a guilt-trip, but it still feels like a chore. Like “shoulds,” they’re something I feel the need to coerce myself to do. It’s not something done out of joy, and it is often accompanied by a lot of reluctance, procrastination, sluggishness, and heavy sighs. It’s also frequently written on a to-do list of other equally arduous tasks, all of it feeling like a massive burden. I also noticed that even things I wanted to do became “need to’s” when I lost sight of why I wanted to do them in the first place!

The trick for me has not only been in eliminating these words from my vocabulary. I tried that with “shoulds,” and they morphed into should’s less blunt but just as unfriendly cousin, “need to.” If we imagine the self as an iceberg, then a tiny fraction of it is above the surface and is easily visible. This tiny fraction, which includes language, gives clues to what lies underneath. While changing vocabulary can have a powerful impact, I prefer to go a step further and compassionately inquire into what could be going on underneath the word itself. So instead of merely changing or eliminating words, I’ve begun to use them as clues to increase my awareness of what I have resistance toward and to assess both the resistance and the action compassionately.

4 Questions I Have Used Which May Help You Unpack and Reframe Your “Shoulds.”

1. Do you really “need to” do it, or are you piling unnecessary responsibilities onto yourself?

2. Where did this “need to” or “should” come from anyway? Is it yours or someone else’s? Was it originally something done out of joy which has morphed into a burden? Was it ever something you wanted to do?

3. Can it be something you want to do again?

4. What reasons are there to want to do it?

Mindful Positive Reinforcement

This last question has been invaluable to me. When I sit down and think about it, I love going to the gym. I love hearing the strong cadence of my heartbeat. I love how powerful I feel when I lift something heavy. I love how accomplished I feel when I break a personal record. I love challenging myself. I love the opportunity to listen to high-energy music. I love how easy it is to get in the zone and forget everything else. I love the opportunity to care for my body, as it cares for me 24/7. And I love how I feel during and afterward: clear-headed, strong, buzzing with energy, and ready to tackle anything.

When I expand my perspective enough to reflect on all the reasons I love something, the “need to” softens into “want to.” The guilt softens into joy and excitement. Same task, wildly different experience and result. A compassionate inquiry and shift to “want to” engages autonomy, which is much more rewarding in both process and result than coercion. Our lives are not made up of a series of accomplishments such as a fit body, anyway. Better to focus on the experience of the process, not the outcome, and to make it an enjoyable one!