SHOULD: How One Simple Word Can Cause Guilt
You should really be more aware of the the words that you use in conversations and their implicit impact.
A statement such as the one above implies that the person you are in conversation with is not doing something they are supposed to be doing, in this case having awareness. This statement is seemingly harmless and to the speaker may be simply intended as a guidance, but in reality, it implies guilt.
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word “should” is defined as a verb that is “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing somebody's actions”.
By using the word “should”, you are setting expectations that you are not fulfilling, causing feelings of guilt and shame. When you use this term in regards to yourself, you are implying that you are failing at your own or cultural expectations. That implication of failure can lead to feelings of guilt and shame which ultimately can cause feelings of depression and anxiety. Statements like “I should have cleaned my place today” or “I should be working on this project for work” lead one to think that they are neglecting responsibilities and not fulfilling obligations. This self imposed guilt can start a downward spiral of negative thought patterns. When you use this term in regards to others, you are denoting and putting down their behavior, or sometimes invalidating it. A statement such as “You shouldn't be sad.” to a friend or partner invalidates the emotion that they are feeling, and comes across dismissive and shaming. A statement such as “You should be in management, you are so good overseeing people” may sound like a positive compliment, but unconsciously will cause resistance to whom you are speaking with. It implies that they have not achieved their full potential. Even culturally, “should” is thrown around in articles, the news, and even from authorities with statements such as “You should be drinking 8 glasses of water a day” or “You should be considering higher education.” Even statements that you read passing by a newsstand can cause feelings of shame and sadness. Be perceptive to the sources that you feel would be trusted, as persuasive writing is simply another tool of marketing and opinion formation.
“Should” is something that you are not. Instead of focusing on what you are not, focus on what you are. Focus on the moment. Focus on what you can do with what you have.
Be mindful today to when you hear or verbalize the word “should”. Pay attention to the context that you hear it in and think about what it may imply to you or to the person that you are speaking with. When you find yourself saying “should”, stop, and replace it with an alternative word to better get your point across. For example, instead of saying “I should finish this project today”, try saying “I would like to finish this project today”. Changing “should” to “would like” in this statement removes the guilt and shame of self induced pressure and potentially failure and replaces it with ownership. Changing “should” to “could” changes a guilt implying statement to one of possibility and choice.
Words have power. The way that we choose to use our language ultimately shapes our patterns of thoughts and our emotions. Starting language and perception change with the word “should” may ignite an awareness in all of the words that you choose to use and listen to.
Written by Amie Harwick, M.A.
Amie Harwick has a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology and currently works in private practice in West Hollywood, CA. To learn more about her, please visit her site here.
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