Don’t Drown In “Should”

Transform "I Should / shouldn’t " into "I can. I will. I did."

Originally published February 6th in Entrepreneur Quarterly

I grew up consuming a steady diet of “should.” I should get good grades. I should participate in extracurriculars. I should lead my peers, find the perfect man, follow the rules, be successful, the list was endless.

My whole life revolved around doing what I “should” be doing. I didn’t know anything different, or that I had any options or choice in the matter. Once I was clear on what I should do and what the rules were, I followed them to a T.

It was only in my late 20s after a marriage, a divorce, a lot of therapy, self-help books, and critical thinking, that I recognized what a complex and unnecessary burden “should” places on each of us.

This is because the voice and influence of “should” is not our own. It is a word that belongs to someone else; our parents, our teachers, our mentors, authority figures, and our inner critic. It is the voice of other people telling us what to do.

I recently taught myself a new technique that has not only enormously calmed my inner critic, it has greatly reduced my feelings of inadequacy, not being good enough, qualified enough, or experienced enough. It is a bold step towards owning my power, and one I’m very pleased I unearthed.

There are two steps to this technique.

#1. The first piece is to lean into “should.” With every ounce of my being, no matter what I am doing, I tell myself that it’s what I should be doing.

This breaks the power of should, and puts control back in my own hands. Sleeping in on a workday? Hitting snooze eight times and then turning off my alarm completely? In a prior life this was certain cause for guilt and self-flagellation. I now tell myself that that is exactly what I should be doing.

Reading as often and as much as I can? That used to make me feel guilty; that I was wasting valuable time on silly things. I now believe that that is exactly what I should be doing. That reading helps me reach my potential by giving my mind new information and, often, the release needed for creativity.

#2. The second piece to the puzzle is replacing “should” with “can” and “will”. The statement, “I ‘should’ do as much good as I can in this world,” becomes, “I can and will do as much good as I can in this world.”

In the new context, living up to this ideal is no longer a daunting responsibility; it’s an exciting opportunity. It’s no longer an obligation weighing me down. Instead, it’s a chance to step confidently into my power; to stand up and make a difference.

The way our brain works supports both of these steps in really positive ways. When you tell your brain you should do something that you’re resisting, it floods with cortisol. I shouldn’t eat another bowl of ice cream brings on a negative hit of cortisol. And cortisol makes it much more challenging to heed your own advice.

Giving your brain permission to do these things gives you a dopamine hit, making it easier to curb behavior in the long run. Converting “should” into “can” and “will” opens up space in your mind to the truth and possibility of these options instead of the limiting confines that exist in the world of “should”.

I’ve found that these two steps are simple, but immensely profound. Easy to read and comprehend, but requiring practice, discipline, and a lot of active self-talk.

The good part is that it gets easier over time, increases confidence, and allows each of us to stop ‘should-ing’ all over ourselves, which is a certain recipe for a messy and self-limited life.