shouldThe Friendly ‘Should’

I used to use the word ‘should’ all the time. It felt benign and friendly. “You should put your toys away before supper time,” always sounded kinder than, “Put away your toys before supper.”

Telling someone what they ‘should’ do sounded so much nicer than telling them what to do. It allowed me to hide my bossy nature from the world (or maybe just deny that I HAVE a bossy side).

And then our daughter entered the miasma of severe depression. For six months she struggled to get out of bed in the morning. We forced her to leave the house and locked the doors when we left in an effort to help her not wallow in darkness. She worked each day (under duress) as a volunteer at a school in exchange for room and board.

We wondered where our self-motivated adolescent had gone. I started reading every book I could find on depression, moods, and eating disorders.

Who would have thought that an innocuous word could have a darker side? It took seeing my daughter suffer before I understood. Click To Tweet

The Darker Side of ‘Should’Who would think that a little word like should could cause so much agony!

A book changed the way I felt about the word ‘should.’ In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns, I learned that should statements “cause you to feel pressured and resentful. Paradoxically, you end up feel apathetic and unmotivated” (location 770 in the ebook).

I went on to read that should statements can cripple someone who already feels down—opening the way for self-loathing and unrealistic expectations. More importantly, I realized that I needed to change the way I spoke to others.

If I wanted to act in an encouraging way, I needed to eliminate ‘should’ from my vocabulary. I didn’t need to burden Sarah (or anyone else, including myself) with a sandbag of shoulds.

Don’t Eliminate Should Altogether

Should has three different meanings. The first replaces the old-fashioned word ‘shall.’ Should we go to a restaurant for supper? If we started using ‘shall’ instead of should, folks might wonder what century we were born in.

Should also replaces ‘would’ in some instances. ‘I should think you would apologize.’ This instance borders on the bossy.

Eliminating the third use requires forming new habits of thought. ‘You should pray more if you feel depressed.’ Not good. People who suffer from mood disorders don’t need our self-righteous advice cloaked in a should.

Rethink, Respect, and Rephrase

I hate it when people tell me what to do—even if they disguise it with a should—and that’s when I’m feeling great! Which means that we need to rethink our propensity to suggest to other people what they should do.

We need to respect their feelings and their right to feel the feels they feel. We want to enter into other people’s world and come alongside of them—not dispense advice and spread guilt.

Respect those with #mentalhealth problems and learn not to use this word. Click To Tweet

I learned to rephrase things. “Would you like to hear my opinion?” and if Sarah said, “No,” I learned to hold my tongue (no small feat). It took time, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job of eliminating the third form of should from my vocabulary.

My relationships with other people have improved because of it. Who would have thought?


  1. Anita, what a powerful take on this word! I haven’t used “should” a ton with my boys,but I have said, “I would recommend . . . ” I need to be careful that I don’t use it like “should.” I never thought about the pressure this word can put on a person. I don’t want to be the one people avoid because they fear I”m going to “should” them into doing something. I want to be that safe place when they need someone to listen and encourage them.

    You share such wisdom here. Thank you! Have a great Friday, my friend.

  2. Great post, Anita. I was a caregiver for a relative who was severely bipolar, when I was quite young. Should was a word that one could never use, either in the manic or depressed phases of the illness.

    When I was teaching, I learned quickly that ‘should’ is an anti-motivator…telling a struggling student, “this is the way you should approach solving this equation” made him or her feel stupid.

    On the other hand, using ‘should’ in the classroom setting when introducing that kind of equation was valued…it gave them what felt like a head start.

  3. I really like this. I always learn something when I read your words. I can see where “should” could be very demanding, divisive and just plain dark. Thank you.

  4. Just excellent, Anita, and SO helpful. Our daughter, who is 18 and has Asperger’s, graduated from high school a year ago. She was accepted at university but deferred her acceptance for a year bc of anxiety issues; she just was not ready emotionally. I’m not sure she is ready yet, or when she will be. She has been mostly at home, where she feels secure and happy (she’s also getting some mental health support). It is so hard to know when to push and when to back off, how to guide without bossing, how to support without enabling… whew. We hear messages like “She ‘should’ be making the most of this year off … working … volunteering …” but we have a son (14) with autism too and sometimes the “should’s” (whether coming from inside or outside) are absolutely overwhelming. So I appreciate your post greatly. Thanks for sharing your insights; they have the authority that comes from experience.

    Jeannie (sitting at #21 this week at FMF)
    Jeannie Prinsen recently posted…Five Minute Friday: SHOULDMy Profile

  5. Great post. I learned so much. It’s so easy to “should” on each other, ourselves and the world. We need to remember not to should on the world. I’m in the 30 spot this week.

  6. This is really great information. As someone who has wrestled with depression for a long time, I agree that ‘should’ are really bothersome and burdening. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Great post! I have felt the shame from the word “should,” and it feels awful. I try really hard not to use it with my kids, but that is easier said than done. What’s even harder is not saying it to myself!

  8. Yes!!! I really like this and am glad you discovered how “should” can come across and the pressure it can heap on others…wish more would understand! You are a blessing!

  9. Anita,

    Your words speak truth here. It’s amazing how much language connects to our persona. The attitudes toward others, of which we are not aware, flow out in our words. And suddenly, an epiphany happens. We recognize why the results we expect in relationships have not been forthcoming. One of my Spiritual Discipline books incorporates the discipline of silence to learn humility. It confronts with how much language is used to control. Thanks for sharing your own learning experience.

  10. I’ve known for a long time that words hold power, and that we ought not to “should” on ourselves, but I hadn’t thought about shoulding on others! Good writing!! And you’re so right about depression. When people say, “If you had enough faith you wouldn’t be depressed” to anyone, I want to say, “Next time you’re tempted to see a doctor, even for a broken leg, remind yourself that if you have enough faith, the leg or whatever else is ‘wrong’ with you will heal on its own.” Is Sarah doing OK now?

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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