Ask Peaceful Dumpling: Quieting the "Should"

December 11, 2014
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How do I quiet all the ‘should’ voices in my head that keep comparing me to others in various realms of life?
Dear Should-ed,
I am a lover of words, and generally I feel that all words have intrinsic value and a place in our language and lives. And yet I’m not a fan of “should.” Sometimes I feel like the person who coined it had some sadistic wish for humanity, like the man (ahem) who invented high heels. One etymological source I found cited Genesis as a first usage, so maybe that says something . . .

My problem with should is that it’s kind of a poser. It seems to be really forceful and powerful but doesn’t accomplish anything on its own. It seems like a command, but isn’t. It seems like something present-tense but it lives somewhere between present, future, and nowhere at all. You could tell a kid “You should do your homework,” but that statement is almost begging to be ignored. The “should” here doesn’t imply anything about who or what will be enforcing it or why, when it should be done, etc. So there’s no motivation to comply, just a hanging cloud of empty should-ness and obligatory resentment in its wake. Compare it with “Do your homework,” which is a direct command lacking in ambiguity on all fronts, no doubt supported by the tone of its delivery.

Things get tricky, though, when the “should” seems to come from your own head and thus morphs into a self-command. It gains authority because, well, it’s only coming from you and why would you steer yourself wrong? You’re telling yourself this thing, and so the implication is that you’ll enforce it, you want it done, and it can or (sorry) should happen ASAP. In fact, it’s not you that’s using that passive aggressive imperative: as you rightly point out, it’s coming from the outside, some external value metric you’ve somehow internalized along the way.

I’ve listened to so many “should”s in my life such that at a certain point I couldn’t tell whether anything I was doing was a genuine desire or just something imposed, mysteriously and absently. I should be in the more advanced class in school; I should be thinner; I should make more money. Ruminating on these ideas, though, essentially made me blind to what I really am, and why it is I was even thinking these ideas. They’re sort of a stand-in for something buried deep inside, some internal dissatisfaction that has nothing at all to do with what I “should” be doing. I think that because I see someone else with a higher salary dressed in a designer outfit and living in a huge apartment that person is healthier/happier/saner, and that having that person’s life will alleviate my problems. That’s probably not true at all: in fact, he or she probably has another should choir on mental repeat. We think we’re the only one should-ing ourselves into who we want to be, but the comparisons we’re holding ourselves to do the same thing. Look at us: two should-ers probably wishing for the same thing, thinking the other has something we should, too–that thing that no one really has because it’s outside of reality.

Once you recognize how “should” is taking you away from “are” or even “will be,” I think you’ll find the voice in your head gets a bit quieter. It may not go away forever, but you can more easily transform a should-thought into a present-thought. That’s because you’ll be aware of its artificiality and how you might think of the underlying motive for your comparison with others and how to satisfy it. The next time you hear a should in your head, immediately find a new verb for the sentence. It doesn’t need to be a direct command–yelling at yourself is less helpful than should-ing!–but something kind and encouraging and above all doable. If you think “I should go to the gym,” consider “I want to go to the gym” (do you?); “I need to go to the gym” (though maybe you don’t, maybe it’s just guilt from yet another comparison); “I can/will go to the gym when . . .” (to give yourself space and a reasonable expectation re timing); “I am going to the gym” (lace up your hot pink sneakers and blast your workout playlist!). All of those alternatives have more concrete connotations, and they’re focused on you, now, instead of some phantom self.

I know this all may seem like a mind game (like telling yourself you really don’t like chocolate), but in the end our minds are always in control of our actions, and of our other thoughts. We can use our minds as tools for good or for evil, improvement or sabotage. Since there are so many things outside of our minds, out of our control, that may tend toward the latter, why not use every neuron in our possession for the former?

Peaceful Dumpling

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Photo: docmoreau via Flickr

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Peaceful Dumpling is used for articles written by staff writers and freelance contributors who wish to remain unidentified.


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