The Problem With the Word 'Should'.

Photography: Etienne Boulanger

Photography: Etienne Boulanger

Written by Psychologist, Elicia Clarke @lifeonthepen

Early one morning, while driving to the airport with my family, my husband and I were having our usual pre-holiday discussion about what we might have forgotten. We were interrupted when through the dark another driver began to flash their high beams at us. The road was mostly empty so I assumed they were alerting us to a fault in our car so when we stopped next to them at traffic lights I wound down my window to politely ask the driver if there was a problem. “Yes,” the driver replied, her words dripping with sarcasm. “It doesn’t seem to go the right speed.” My husband and I had driven that road hundreds of times and knew it had a few changes in the speed limit from 60 to 70. I tried to let her know the speed limit was 70 but she quickly  retaliated by calling me and idiot and driving off.

Taken back by the abrasive nature of the driver, my husband and I had a chuckle over the idea that she would one day see the sign marked 70 and realise her mistake. That should have been the end of it but the woman’s rudeness kept plaguing my mind for the remainder of our holiday. While I could appreciate her vigilante style speed operation, why did she have to be so rude about it? Logically I knew her attitude was probably due to a bad morning or bad previous experience and not me personally, but I was polite to her. She should have been nice back.

As soon as I thought it, I recognised the problem. Recently I have been doing some work with my clients on identifying the ‘shoulds’ in their lives. These are the unwritten rules they tell themselves about what they should do, be or want. After discussing this with my clients I thought it might be useful to listen out for my own ‘shoulds’. As it turned out, my unwritten rules mostly revolved around how I felt others should treat me.


Recognising and Acknowledging the ‘Should”

Once I had found the pattern, ‘should’ seemed to pop up every time I was upset at somebody. Some girlfriends had planned a weekend away on my birthday and I was hurt because they should have realised the clash in dates. I could even trace it back to my experiences with difficult managers at work. In one particular workplace I remember thinking that if I worked hard, my boss should have given me praise and trust rather than criticism and unkindness. The problem with my ‘should’ is it often keeps me stuck in the problem. Instead of accepting the situation, I replay it over and over in my head to come up with the way I feel it should have happened. To be clear, accepting the situation is not the same as allowing bad behaviour. Instead, dropping the should empowered me to make choices.


Reframing the ‘Should’

When I talk with clients about their ‘shoulds’ we often look for a way to reframe them. For example, clients who tell themselves they should be more organised might change their thinking to ‘I’m trying to be more organised’ or ‘I’d like to be more organised’. This allows them to set some realistic goals around organisation rather than have the expectation that they should already have that skill. I tried replacing ‘people should treat me kindly’ with ‘it would be great if people treated me kindly but if they don’t I have a choice in how I respond’.

Making Values-Based Choices

Another important part of the work I do with clients is helping them identify and live by their values. When we find ourselves making decisions that go against our values it often results in stress or discomfort. For me, family is a core value and worrying about the rude driver was taking away from valuable time with them. Sometimes a person’s bad behaviour just isn’t worth your time or energy. What I could have done was catch myself every time I thought about her and instead thought, ’It would have been great if the driver were more polite but I’ll never see her again so I’m going to focus on my holiday’.

Respect is another big value of mine and tapping in to it helps me make decisions about my behaviour. Sometimes when I think someone should be treating me better, they’re unaware of the impact their behaviour is having and it’s something that can be fixed with a respectful conversation. For example, ‘it would have been great if my friends remembered my birthday but as they didn’t, I can remind them and ask if we can do the trip on another date’.

On other occasions you’re faced with behaviours that don’t stop despite talking about it and aren’t minor enough to just let go. For example, when I was feeling stressed and weighed down by my former manager, I spent so much time and energy venting about how she should be treating me. This left me feeling hopeless in the situation and out of whack from my value of respect. I wasn’t being respected by her and I wasn’t respecting myself by staying in that environment. It wasn’t until I realised I had a choice that I was able to think, ‘It would be great if my boss treated me kindly so I’m going to leave to find one who does.’



Sarah Fritz