Is “should” one of the top words in your daily vocabulary?
I use it so much that it carries the power of a four-letter curse word. I like to think the shoulds that run through my head each day motivate me to act: connect with people, accomplish tasks, or engage intentionally with my kids.
But in reality, shoulds feel heavy. They remind me of all the friends I’ve neglected, the tasks left unfinished, and the kids who need more of me.
And then I feel defeated.
Those are just the inner shoulds. What about all the shoulds coming from friends, family and our culture?
In the children’s book Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang, the titular character is feeling crabby, despite it being a beautiful day. His friends try to fix his mood.
“You should roll with us! You should stroll with us!
You should lie in the grass!
You should stomp your feet!
Take a bath, make a splash, hug someone, laugh, take a nap, eat old meat, or some honey, jump up and down, sit in the sun, dance!”
While I recently read these words to my boys, the grown-up version of this dialogue started playing through my head:
“You should get a new job! You should work more! You should work less!
You should sleep train! You should live “zero waste!”
You should be a room parent! You should stop eating meat!
You should nap, power through, take care of yourself, stop being selfish, lose weight, stay home, put yourself out there!”
It becomes difficult to discern who is even voicing all these shoulds. Did someone actually say that? Even if she was thinking it, SHOULD it matter to me? There’s that word again.
My counselor once suggested I replace my many shoulds with coulds. She said shoulds feel like guilt, while coulds feel like choices. Let’s try it.
I should call the friend I haven’t talked to in ages.
I could call my friend, but my son needs my attention. I would love to connect with her during his nap.
I should throw a Pinterest-worthy birthday party.
I could throw a Pinterest-worthy birthday party, but a cake, balloons and family are just our speed.
I should work more. I’m so behind.
I could work more, but I need to rest so I can be more efficient in catching up.
I should volunteer to lead the neighborhood block party.
I could volunteer, but I’ve already committed to another role. I’ll pass this time.
This isn’t a shirking of responsibility, nor is it rooted in selfishness. It’s knowing your capacity, saying “no” or “later,” and protecting your time so you can focus on what matters.
It’s pouring of yourself from a full well instead of the dregs of an empty glass. It’s not living under a constant shadow of guilt.
The empowering “could” allows you room to choose, breathe and give yourself grace.