You know, you really should be doing something more productive than reading a blog.

Wait! Don’t X out. I’m making a point here.

Go back to that first sentence. How did you feel when you read it? A slight twinge of guilt? A hint of anger (along with the thought: “Who is she to tell me what to do? I should be able to do what I want!”).

Either way, I seriously doubt that reading that sentence increased your happiness level at all.

That’s because it’s a should. A common yet pesky and secretly damaging word. Should is the Mean Girls of the English language—a frenemy that appears sweet, innocent, well-intentioned but really is designed to bring you down. Hear me out.

Internal Shoulds

First, let’s talk about internal shoulds, the ones that crop up in our thoughts and self-talk. Remember, thoughts influence emotions big time. Consider, for a moment, how you feel when you tell yourself “should.” “I should be liked by everyone.” “I shouldn’t make a mistake.” “I should be a morning person.” How do you feel? Really think about it.

Have you ever thought “should” and experienced a positive emotion? Unlikely. Most often, internal shoulds lead to a sense of failure along with feelings of anxiety or guilt. Shoulds highlight the bar we didn’t reach (and, frankly, that may not even be possible to reach).

What about when you target a should toward someone else? “She should know how I feel.” “He shouldn’t do that.” Shoulds about other people impose expectations and almost always lead to feelings of frustration, or even anger and resentment. Think about the last time you felt irritated with someone else. What were you thinking? $100 says there was a should involved.

External Shoulds

Now let’s talk about the impact of verbalized shoulds, the out loud ones we direct to or hear from others. If I tell you that you really should have done X instead of Y, what message does that send to you?

The unspoken message is that you messed up in some way, that you’re not good enough.

While my comment may have genuinely come from a good place or a desire to help, the unintended message is that you made a mistake or, worse, that you as a person fell short in some way. Imagine the damage that can be done by a message like that over and over again.

What makes shoulds so sneaky is that they’re criticisms and judgments disguised as help. They encapsulate societal or self-imposed pressures that chip away at our happiness and confidence and break down our relationships.

What To Do About It

I’ve known for quite some time that shoulds are unhelpful. They are the voice of unrealistic standards and the fuel for anxiety, guilt, and anger. I’ve taught people for years that “shoulds” are cognitive distortions (brain tricks or thinking errors). What I didn’t know until more recently, however, was just how common that word was in my own mental and spoken language or what to do about it. I’m happy to say that has changed (or, more aptly, happy because that has changed).

I banned the word should! I have all but erased it from my vocabulary. And, when I do use it, I do so much more intentionally and with awareness of the potential damage it may do.

Sounds simple, right? It’s a little harder than it seems but is so worth the effort. This little trick that I learned from my friend Dr. Heather Smith is one that has had a significant impact on me personally and one that I share with anyone who will listen (which now, hopefully, includes you!).

Here’s how to handle shoulds:

1. Notice how often you think or say that word (you’ll start to notice how often others say it, too). Awareness is the first step in change.

2. Now, when you catch a should, reword it. This practice will help you differentiate your true values or meaning from the “you messed up, you failure you” message. It will also help you determine whether it really is something you want to listen to and take to heart or should (ding, ding, ding, did your radar go off?) disregard because it’s only weighing you down.

Note: You’re missing the point if you simply replace “should” with one other word like “ought” or “could.” Those are just sneakier versions of should!

Let me illustrate this trick.

Example 1: I have a should: “I should wear a seat belt in a car.”

Sounds innocent and helpful, right? Let’s reword it and see for sure. “I choose to wear a seat belt in a car because it takes no effort and keeps me safe.” That seems like pretty solid life advice. It has a neutral tone and doesn’t imply any shortcoming on my or anyone else’s part. Final verdict: I’ll keep it.

Example 2: “I should not have said that.” (sound familiar?)

Hmmm…harder to take the should out of this one (which is usually a sign that it’s mental garbage—throw it out. It’s not helpful!), but let’s persist.

“I wish I had not said that.” Wait. That’s simply replacing “should” with another word. We need to expand on that to really reword it. Why do I wish I had not said that?

“I wish I had not said that because she might get offended.” Now what? This at least leads to a course of action to fix the situation (e.g., apologize or clarify what I meant to say) OR it gives me an opportunity to realize that she is unlikely to get offended (if that’s the case) or that what I said wasn’t really that offensive. Either way, the outcome—fix it and/or let it go—is more helpful than mentally beating myself up for something I can’t change.

Example 3: “I should love Tom Hanks.”

“But you should,” you mentally scream at me. Slow your roll. I know that everyone else loves him. The fact that I don’t but think I should leads to less self-acceptance or confidence or, worse, efforts to fake it. Ban the should!

Who says I should love Tom Hanks? Everyone? Who cares! Is it really a big deal? Would my life be better if I did? I think not! Berating myself for this one is not worth it. I’m going to throw it out.

(This applies to lots of shoulds that pack way more of a punch than Tom Hanks. “I should be a size 4.” Outcome? I feel down and ashamed of my body. I diet and over-exercise, hide my body, make disparaging comments, which aren’t fun for anyone who hears them, and/or criticize myself and feel guilty while not enjoying the Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey I’m eating. Reword without the should? I can’t! You try it.)

A useful strategy for rewording a should, especially in the beginning, is to use the format “I want ______ because _________.”

“I should go to the gym everyday” becomes “I want to go to the gym everyday because it will make me healthier and my health is super important to me.”

Or, more honestly, it becomes “I want to go to the gym everyday because…wait, I DON’T want to go to the gym everyday. That’s hogwash!” The original should gets reworded to “I’d like to go to the gym a couple times a week.” Much more realistic and much less unnecessary guilt.

If you can’t figure out how to reward a should, let it go! Hit the mental delete button and move on to something more worthy of your time and energy.

A Word of Advice

Unless someone specifically asks you, “What do you think I should do?” volunteering “helpful” (picture those as air quotes to denote sarcasm) advice by telling him what he should or should not do will do a little bit of damage, even if it’s not realized immediately. “You should or shouldn’t have done that”—an after the fact unsolicited should—is even less helpful. There’s nothing to do about it now! Your message is simply “you messed up” or, worse, “you are a failure.”

If that’s your intent, please, by all means, continue to should all over the place. If it’s not, find another way to say it. It will feel better for you and for the other person.

Remember, don’t should on yourself and don’t should on someone else.

Originally published at