Forget the word “should.”

After talking with another former classmate/newsroom-mate, I wanted to bring out the highlight from yesterday. I’m not saying this would have saved Brian, but it was life-changing for me, and I’d say there’s probably a 10% chance it can be life-changing for you, too. If you’re one of the 90%, it’s more likely to be merely helpful.

The problem is the word “should.” And while I generally think striking words from the English language is a bad idea because language control is thought control, this is one instance where I don’t think thought control is a bad thing. “Should” is a club that we use to beat ourselves up with far too often.

It started a few years ago with my therapist telling me to write down my major thoughts for the day each day, for a week. I had a bad week that week, so it ended up being pretty easy. My high school English and journalism teacher died and I couldn’t go to her funeral or visitation because I had to work, and it all went down from there. So I came to the next session with a piece of paper with about 20 sentences typed on it.

Basically I was making three mistakes over and over, but the most frequent one involved use of the word “should.”

I should have stayed in touch.

I should have told my boss I wouldn’t stay late.

I should study for that certification.

In most cases, what I really meant to say is, “I wish,” rather than “I should have.” “I wish” is better, because it doesn’t internalize guilt and it doesn’t place blame. Saying “I should” blames yourself every time, unconditionally, and sometimes for things that are beyond your control.

Let’s say there’s a traffic jam. There’s a wreck, you’re late for work, everyone around you is road raging and it’s getting on your nerves. What’s wrong with saying, “I should have taken the back roads?”

Everything. You didn’t know there would be a wreck. Taking the back roads takes twice as long when the interstate is flowing the way it’s designed to. (Notice I didn’t say “should.”) Given what you knew at the time, you made the best decision that you could, and this time it didn’t work out. Sometimes that happens.

Now, if it happens a lot, then maybe it makes sense to get a traffic-sensing GPS or a traffic app for your smartphone, if you have one. Then you would have more information and get it faster and be able to make better decisions–like when to take an alternate route around a jam, and which alternate route is flowing the best. But there’s no reason to beat yourself up about it. And that’s the thing. If you’re not beating yourself up about it, you’re more likely to think of a solution to the problem, like a traffic-sensing GPS or smartphone app, and then your momentum is moving in a positive direction instead of negative.

So I really try not to use the word “should” when I think or talk about myself, or about other people. Why other people? It leads to bitterness and resentment. When you say someone should do something and then the person doesn’t do it, you feel resentful when it doesn’t happen.

And let’s look at an innocent, everyday situation. My boss is away from his desk, and someone comes looking for him and asks me where he is.

I can say, “He’s in a meeting. He should be back in 10 minutes.”

But what if he isn’t back in 10 minutes? That implies–subtly, but the implication is there–that he did something wrong. What if he decides he wants a cup of coffee afterward and it takes him 12 minutes to get back? What if his boss calls or texts him about an emergency? That happens. Trust me, it happens.

A subtle change lets him off the hook. “He’s in a meeting, and the meeting is scheduled to be over in 10 minutes.”

The intent of the message is the same, but if the meeting goes long, or something else delays him, it doesn’t imply that he did something wrong.

And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying my car should run fine on 87 octane gas, or a Dell monitor should work fine with an HP computer, if I catch myself there and substitute phrases like “is designed to,” or “is compatible with,” then I find I’m less likely to say “should” about a person.

I really have no use for the word. By avoiding it, I’m much happier, and I get to solutions more quickly–which is important, seeing as I solve problems for a living.

Aside: How did I arrive at that 10% figure? Because in the area of cognitive therapy, there are 10 common cognitive errors. Chances are that any given person is prone to one of them more than the others.

If you found this post informative or helpful, please share it!

3 thoughts on “Forget the word “should.”

  • October 18, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Another cognitive blockstopper is the word “Can’t”.

    Most of time “Can’t” means “Won’t”.

    Buck up, give yourself some freedom of choice and say “Won’t”, instead.

    (Sometimes, in diplomatic conversation, the preferred phrase is “I’m afraid XXX would be impossible” and even that is more honest than “Can’t.)

  • October 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    I have started doing that when telemarketers call, or beggars on the street approach me. “I’m sorry, I won’t do that.”

    I *am* sorry – I’d like to make all the badness in the world disappear. It isn’t my job, though. And owning the decision not to give them money makes it easier to live with the decision. I don’t have to re-visit ways to move money around in my budget to make it happen.

  • October 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm


    What a keen reply! I was thinking of “I Can’t” in the internal sense, but you’ve made it clear that “I Can’t” or “I Won’t” works both ways: internal or external transactions.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: