When we simultaneously feel that we “should” get a lot of paying work done and “should” do self-care and “should” maintain a clean home and “should” make the world a better place, we feel shame that we are failing in so many ways. We can reframe our thoughts by replacing “should” with “could.” “Should” makes us look over our shoulder to see if we are good enough yet. “Could” invites us to look inside instead.
We can only do one thing at a time. When we choose what to do next, we could do paying work or self-care or home maintenance or activism. Perhaps we do want to make progress on a project or do the dishes to fulfill commitments made by our past self, or as a gift to our future self.
“Could” adds possibilities
Where “should” narrows the field and already knows the right answer, “could” adds possibilities and questions. Is it true that we could do that? We all have limits, both internally and externally. Perhaps washing dishes would trigger back pain. Perhaps paying work is much harder to find as a Black woman. Do we want to do that? Perhaps our intuition senses that an opportunity we “should” take would not be good for us.
We might want to do something that is not included in that list of “shoulds.” We could do something fun, or sit down and rest. Perhaps some emotions need our kind attention before we can take action.
We might feel overwhelmed by a task we want to get done. We could ask for help. We could take a tiny step that seems too small to count, like washing a single dish, or looking up a phone number, or opening a document. Tiny steps still move forward, and might be the only way to make progress on an intimidating task.
In an effort to be a good person and to win others’ approval, we tell ourselves what we “should” be doing, the experiences we “should” be having, and the trajectories our lives “should” be taking.
As children, we internalize adults’ voices and absorb what we “should” do and how we “should” be from media and advertisements. We could consciously change the internal committee that tells us what is right and wrong. We could affirm to ourselves that we are already enough, just as we are right now.
In the present, when someone says, “You should…” we can hear it as, “You could…” or “I want you to…”. When people give us advice, they are talking about their own life and experience. We can nod politely and consider whether it applies to us.
When a friend says, “You should come to the movies with me,” they might mean, “It’s a great movie and I think you would enjoy it.” When you pause to consider whether you want to go, they easily accept your answer.
On the other hand, they might mean, “I don’t want to go alone, so I’m going to push you to come.” In that case, they might use increasing fear, obligation, and guilt to pressure you into accompanying them.
When you stick to “could,” you can take a step back from the pressure to evaluate how their agenda affects you, and whether you want to go along with part or all of it. Maybe you do want to keep them company even though you had other plans. Maybe you want to offer an alternative activity for the evening. Maybe you want to give a firm, clear, “No,” despite feeling guilty.
We reflexively avoid the pain of feeling guilty. We can inquire inside whether guilt is deserved or undeserved. If we feel guilty because our behavior did not meet our own standards, we can look at how to do better next time, apologize and make amends as best we can, and move on. When the friend says, “You promised you would come with me!” you could respond, “I’m sorry. I messed up. I’ll be more careful with what I promise in the future.”
If the guilt is undeserved because we were doing our best, or we are taking on too much responsibility that is not ours, or we already tried to make amends, we can think the magic words, “Not my problem.” The Polish version is, “Not my circus, not my monkey.” Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.
If you had made it clear that you probably would not go to the movie, you might say to the friend, “I hear that you are disappointed. I hope you find someone to go with you or have a good time on your own,” and kindly end the conversation.
Values and ethics
Sometimes we use “should” to mean, “The world should work this way according to my values and ethics.” For example, when we see a Muslim woman being harassed, we think, “Someone should do something. That shouldn’t be happening.” We make a personal choice between, “Not my problem,” or, “Too dangerous to intervene,” or “I am someone. I will do something.”
We could say out loud, “That’s not okay,” or provide quiet support by sitting down next to her and striking up a conversation about the weather. When one person takes a small action, other observers are more likely to take action as well.
While we absorb values and ethics from the people and culture around us, we also have a responsibility to evaluate how we want to behave, and what world we want to help create.
Choices and boundaries
Each day, we work toward living in agreement with our chosen values and ethics. While our Inner Critic and people around us will still pile on the “shoulds,” we can respond with self-compassion and self-forgiveness when our daily efforts fall short of our aspirations. Replacing “should” with “could” relieves painful pressure and gives us more room to make clear choices.
- In her book Emotional Blackmail, Susan Forward introduces the acronym FOG for Fear, Obligation, and Guilt, and gives step-by-step advice for getting out of the FOG of emotional blackmail.
- This brief blog post “Not my circus, not my monkeys” has informative comments about the origin and use of the expression.