Why “Should” Is Ruining Your Life

I grew up reading Harry Potter, and I fell in love with the story about rag-tag characters who defy all odds and come out on the winning side, not because of brute strength, but because of the love they had for each other.

It taught me a lot about the world and the people in it, but one of the most crucial lessons I learned from these books came from the wise and mysterious character Dumbledore, who said this:

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”

Now as a kid, I felt like the effect of my words had to do with how I related to others and how I spoke about those around me. But as an adult, I find that these words also apply to myself.

The words you use to speak to yourself matter.

They matter a lot.

Unfortunately, what I see everyday is that the words typically chosen for ourselves are not only unkind, but they are often shaming and destructive to our core.

They pluck away at key pieces of our survival by attacking the value that we give to ourselves. As I listen to what people say about themselves and to themselves, there seems to be one word among the many others that surfaces constantly…

“Should.”

This word is one of the most destructive ones we have packed into our daily vocabulary. “I should be in better shape.” “I should have been kinder.” “I should have more answers at work.” “I should be the best child—spouse—and friend—I can possibly be.”

In the book Self-Esteem, Dr. Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning discuss the problem with the tyranny of “should.” This word often leads you to a sense of being bad and unacceptable. It makes you feel as though you are unworthy, that you are not enough, that you are ugly. “Should” might be destroying you.

Now let me be clear. There is a good type of “should.” But this “should” is based on healthy values, and it typically doesn’t cause us to be so internally aggressive. But the unhealthy “should” is based on an unhealthy value. The unhealthy “should” is inflexible, it is carried like a burden, and its goals are often unrealistic. Healthy “shoulds” help you own your actions and rectify the hurt you may have caused in others, but the unhealthy “shoulds” just make you feel inadequate.

Think for a moment about how you talk to yourself. Where do your unhealthy “shoulds” typically emerge? What do they target the most? Maybe it’s your physical appearance, or your performance and social skills, or how you handle your important relationships. Maybe it’s all of the above.

Next time you start “shoulding” all over yourself, try using flexible language (I’d prefer, I want to, this would be helpful) rather than inflexible language (all, always, never). It sounds like an insignificant change. “Should” is only six letters long. But imagine what kindness this realistic language would do to help you feel better.

Words can bruise or they can heal. You get to decide what they are going to do for you. And it’s a little something like magic when those words are used to heal.

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