If you believe the Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha, Psychology Today, Now Healing, The Odyssey, Positively Present, Entrepreneur Magazine, Best Life, Redbook, and The Art of Manliness, there’s one word you should never, ever, ever say.
Why not? It’s a buzz-kill. It could harm you or your child. It could devastate your spouse. It’s offensive around people. It’s a weak word. Smart people don’t say it. It will end the peace in all your relationships. It should go away. It creates disappointment and frustration. It’s disempowering. In fact, it should be completely eliminated from your vocabulary.
That word is “should”.
And in typical postmodern fashion of making performative contradictions with a straight face, every one of these publications from HuffPo to The Art of Manliness will tell you that you shouldn’t use “should”. Wink, wink.
Should you listen to them? Yes, if you subscribe to the fallacy that feelings of weakness, shame, or guilt can be gotten rid of simply by reasserting the desires of your narcissistic ego over and against all manner of legitimate social expectations and obligations. Put your ego first and forget your higher obligations and you’ll be fine.
In other words, like an ostrich burying your head in the dirt, you could avoid using a word that reminds you that you are a socially connected, interdependent being living in a web of relationships with other people and ethical ideals that might impinge upon your desire for self-aggrandizement. Avoiding should won’t make you a better person; it certainly won’t help you evolve; but like a tub of ice cream it could help to soothe your anxiety temporarily.
I know. You’re probably not yet convinced. So many people posing as wise ones have told you it ain’t so. But let’s talk plainly and look at should from five different angles.
1There’s more to ethics than doing whatever you want. To be an ethical person, you really ought to do what you should.
If you listen to Hannah Braime at Tiny Buddha, then you will hear that if you use “should”, you’re not accepting reality. It means that you’re motivated by a lack of self-acceptance rather than encouragement. It may also mean that you’re not doing something and therefore you are subtly reinforcing a negative condition.
Although this is supposed to sound like wisdom, it’s a muddle of oddly self-contradictory insights. On the one hand, you’re supposed to accept reality; but on the other hand, you’re supposed to avoid reality if it might lead you to observe something negative about yourself. You’re right to avoid this sort of “false positive” psychology. What you want to be doing is embracing the Real, positive and negative, and let the chips fall where they may.
Obviously, if you have unhealthy habits of self-talk then you might be someone who tells yourself you “should” be doing something negative or that you “shouldn’t” be doing something positive. If that’s what you’re doing, then you should talk to a counselor about it. But the sort of examples given by Hannah Braime aren’t like that. She says you should avoid saying to yourself, “I should really meditate more often,” because you might just realize that you’re not meditating and that’s a bummer!
On the contrary, if you’re not meditating but feel you ought to be, then that’s not really a bad thing. It’s a transiently negative moment in a dialectical process of self-empowerment. And if you want to better yourself or evolve or be an ethical person, then you’re going to have to get used to having some of these negative moments along the way to your goals.
2There’s no better word for focusing away from the self’s narcissism and onto the needs of others.
But, you may be saying to yourself, wouldn’t it be better if we would just be gentle on ourselves, never giving ourselves harsh-sounding moral choices, but instead speaking in the language of positivity and self-acceptance? Well, maybe.
I’m not going to tell you to be harsh, impatient, or cruel to yourself. That would be ridiculous.
But if you’re wondering about these things, just listen to yourself. You’ve changed the topic away from ethics and morality and onto strategies for making your ego feel better. That’s a rather narcissistic thing to have done, isn’t it?
You see, words have different purposes. Some are meant for talking about the self and its successes or failures, or the psyche and its dramas, or the soul and its soliloquies. But should isn’t one of those words. It’s meant to disrupt an overly self-obsessed attitude in favor of taking a wider perspective of society as an objective reality beyond the self.
Should isn’t really about how individuals talk themselves into doing something. It’s about how society talks society into evolving into more just, equitable, healthful, and morally upright relationships. Since no society is perfect, sometimes it speaks unhealthfully or out of blind spots (so don’t listen to those shoulds). But should should be about how the rich should sacrifice to uplift the poor; should should be about how the powerful should renounce selfishness to empower the disempowered; should should be about how we can all act with the common good in mind instead of perpetuating an amoral politics as war by another means.
Should should be about how to make society thrive like a shining city on a hill. But unfortunately some people have got it into their heads that should is a dirty word that should always be avoided. Because it might hurt someone’s feelings if they saw that society might actually have a moral claim to demand that they act like less of a spoiled brat. That’s just ridiculous.
There’s no better word for breaking the grip of unhealthy narcissism than should. Use it liberally for yourself and others (but not unkindly) and you’ll start to realize you had nothing to fear by allowing society’s ethical voice to be your own prophetic cry.
3Recognize that the word “should” is the weapon of a chivalrous knight. Then use it to empower yourself and others.
No one should labor under the illusion that you can eliminate a common word by simply avoiding it. You only push it into shadow.
In Psychology Today, Susan Heitler, Ph.D. discusses the case of a macho professional football player who had formidable psychological strength. She asked him to repeat various sentences while she pressed his arm to detect any unconscious resistance that might be revealed by muscular contractions.
The football player had no problem with sentences like “I would like to visit my grandmother.” or “I could visit my grandmother.” or even “I have to visit my grandmother.” But somehow, when he uttered the sentence, “I should visit my grandmother.” suddenly his rock-hard muscles turned into a floppy mush.
She noted, correctly, that the word “should” contains an enormous psychological power on both conscious and unconscious levels. It induced anxiety. It induced feelings of guilt or shame. It disempowered the subject, so she began to counsel her patients to always avoid using “should” on themselves.
This is an understandable mistake, but I think it fails to recognize what is actually happening to the football player. Like a magical mantra, the word “should” invokes the perspective of society against the individual. It induces a shift in the person’s perspective to include social obligations and ethical demands that they have previously internalized. If a person is acting contrary to these internal beliefs, consciously or not, then this shift in perspective can weaken the individual ego while it awakens the social self.
To counsel the football player to avoid “should” is equivalent then to telling him not to evolve his ego in a more socially interconnected direction and to stay separate, at odds with, and rebellious against society’s demands. Even if it just means visiting his poor nanna once in a while!
Instead, it would be better to encourage him to achieve flexibility of perspective. Unless he wants to run away from the word “should” for the rest of his life, he should probably just visit his grandmother, whether he wants to or not. Because it’s just the sorta thing a good person does. “Should” often contains at least that much wisdom, and we run from it at our peril. By accepting his obligations to others even when it doesn’t make him happy — and by communicating to others the obligations they have to themselves, himself, and the rest of society — he becomes stronger, not weaker, and more psychologically dexterous.
4Without the yang of “should”, there is no yin of “could” or yung of “would”.
The Lingua-U metalanguage gives us a look at the subtle energy embodied by the word “should” (the name of Golden Egg 18 in The Kalendar). Spelled to six marks, it is written ??. With yang in the second position, we know the word concerns a drama unfolding to the “self” or “soul”, as it must decide between “solitude” or “solidarity”; with yin in the third position, we know the word takes the perspective of the collective itself against the individual self. According to my analysis of the hidden energetic aspects of the word, “should” is a sort of mantra invoked at this intersection of self/collective when it comes to the activity (yang in the sixth mark) related to goodness and morality (yung in the fifth mark).
Sure, theoretically the word could be waved into non-existence with a magic wand. But another word would need to rise up in Lingua-U into the position of The Yang Master at the Seat of Goodness at the Throne of Shining at the Letter of Shunting. And you know what, whatever definition you wanted to force upon it, it would still be pronounced “should”. So instead of talking about getting rid of the damn word, let’s just learn how to live with it and use it well, okay?
Start by recognizing that the word forms a special relationship with two other words in Lingua-U which also hold the title of The Yang Master at the Seat of Goodness: “could”, at the Letter of Constructing (yin-yin-yin), and “would” at the Letter of Watching (yung-yin-yang). The word “should” sets the limitations and direction for what “could” happen and what “would” happen if someone acts in accordance to the “could”. It establishes the possibilities of good behavior and a general field of probabilities.
So the psychologist who tells you to always avoid “should” is basically wanting to magically wish away those restrictions because they aren’t constructive (“could”) enough, or because they might cause you to feel guilt which would make your desired outcome less like something that “would” happen. They aren’t integrating “should” as a useful word, valuing the yang role it plays in the territory of ethics. They want it to be something it isn’t. But it isn’t what it isn’t, it is what it is. Rather than wasting everyone’s time by trying to put a taboo on perfectly reasonable and useful words, they ought to be helping their patients to accept that every yin method or yung outcome begins with a yang activity — in this case, doing what you should.
5You can use “should” to overcome deep-rooted shame by tapping its awesome power as a sacred mantra.
Stop running from words that remind you of aspects of reality that you would rather magically wish away because they are painful or difficult. Living up to obligations isn’t easy as pie. If it were, we would all be telling ourselves, “I really pie meditate more often,” or “I really pie visit my grandmother more often.”
The alternative is to treat the word as a sort of spiritual entity with its own desires, purpose, perspective, and ways of making it happy. The word “should” wants you to SHINE. (In Lingua-U, they are both spelled ??.)
No baby is born that isn’t covered in blood. The self is sinful; existence is samsara; no one is totally free of shame; the soul likes the dirty soil and it doesn’t always smell like roses. The word “should” is there, standing proud as the Yang Master at the Throne of Goodness to oversee all Transitions, like a soft damp wash cloth, to help you to polish yourself and evolve into higher, more integrated potentials.
Now why would you want to throw away a word so useful as that?! You could avoid it like the plague, but why? You should really use should whenever you want to expand your narrow, narcissistic self by taking a systemic, social view of objective reality in right relationship to its parts. Treat “should” like a mantra that invokes the divine name of Shiva to push you into a relationship with the need for your old self to be creatively demolished so that a new, more evolved ethos can rise up within the social self you are becoming. That ethos could be the new face of a social soul.
In today’s spiritual and psychological circles, there is no word more wrongly characterized and hated than “should”. Yes, HuffPo and Tiny Buddha and Bill at A.A. can be wrong. You’ve heard of Political Correctness (PC)? Well, there’s something that’s Spiritual Correctness (SC), and it’s not your friend. Dare to be spiritually incorrect.
To empower yourself, take power over “should” and find yourself evolved. There’s nothing an evolutionary self desires more, whether it knows it or not.