May I have a word?

Posted by : | April 30, 2016

I set out to write the definitive, morally indisputable stance on SHOULD, but the truth is, SHOULD is as slippery as it is stubborn and as seductive as it is convicting. It’s both bondage and opportunity, both albatross and eagle—the kind of SHOULD that lovingly encourages me like a grandmother to explore and live well but also the kind that compares and defeats and sits devilishly on my shoulder with its claws in my neck.

SHOULD is, on the one hand, a narrative that binds me. It is the Miss Hannigan to my captive soul, ordering me about with its wiry and graying hair, ill-fitting skirt and torn stockings. Weary and hard from years of battling a defiant and rebellious will, SHOULD mercilessly drags me along a well-worn neuro-path to a prison cell of self-loathing, a dead-end where I remind myself how inadequate and lazy I truly am.

I’ve been telling myself to write about SHOULD for at least five years now, and, in a poetic twist of truth and the ironies that reveal it, I have SHOULD-ed myself more while writing this post than any other—and shamed myself into near paralysis. SHOULD makes me feel like I’ve already failed for not yet having done a thing. And the longer I don’t—regardless of reason or rationale—the more I chide myself, and the more SHOULDS I add to the I Am a Failure list.

But what is it about SHOULD that pulls me into discontent? None other than its henchmen: consequence and obligation.

Implicit in our Western view of SHOULD is the promise of a better, more perfect now (and me), and ignoring its prompt means suffering the consequence, even if we aren’t conscious of it. I should—or else. … Or else I’ll have wasted my time (and my life), or I’ll have missed the opportunity, or I’ll keep gaining weight, or they’ll think poorly of me. Truth is, most everything ultimately boils down to the first and last of those; we nag ourselves to avoid regret and humiliation.

Also implicit in SHOULD (and further stoking the embers of discontent) is obligation, a pesky and gnawing sense of duty to some shapeless ideal, a perfectly perfect perfect we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we can attain. So we collect the SHOULDS we think will get us there, however trivial or hefty. … I should dust the baseboards every two weeks, I should get a master’s degree, I should pray more often, I should call that friend I never call, I should be a VP of something by now, I should learn to make at least one classic French sauce, I should fly to Lesbos and help those refugees, I should read everything in The New York Times every day, I should finish painting my kitchen cabinets while the light is good instead of writing this. And I should do these things because that’s what a great wife/mom/daughter/sister/professor/friend/citizen/journalist/Christ follower does. I should because the really great women out there can manage to do it all (which is a lie our battered but prideful souls are quick to believe, and a topic for another day). So we nag ourselves into trying to earn the self-worth that comes freely and fully at birth.

But why am I not content with the pre-SHOULD now? Why is who I am without having done these things not enough? Why must I have more, do more, achieve more, be more? In part, because I can.

Clearly, I’m not a lover of this word, as I generally feel trapped by it even as I hurl it at myself over and over (or because I do). All these duties and tasks and to-do’s yet undone, SHOULD inherently implies defect. It knows I lack.

But the flip side is that merely thinking the word implies choice, and to have choice is antithetical to oppression. What should I be when I grow up? Should I take the job in Boston or stay put? Should I become a vegetarian? Should we downsize?

SHOULD is, in truth, a luxury word. It means I have the option not to do something. It is a word of privilege, in our case wielded by a spoiled and indecisive generation fickle about whether to do what we know is right and good when it imposes on our comfort and who run about mostly incognizant of our good fortune, instead bemoaning what is, in fact, an embarrassment of riches and situation. I doubt Syrian refugees are fretting about which outfit to wear today, or whether to go grocery-shopping before or after the gym.

So on the other hand, SHOULD clearly is a narrative of opportunity. It means the issue in question is within the realm of my possibility. And that means I have options and the freedom to choose. SHOULD also is the language of the curious. For every 9 people who hear the word and silently flail themselves, I’d like to think there’s at least one who’s inspired and energized into a bright and adventurous future. (I’m married to that one in 10.) Most significantly, SHOULD also taps into our three basic human longings—to grow, to have purpose and to be free to choose—so it’s no wonder SHOULD finds its way into every nook and cranny of our vernacular. We want to improve and make a difference as we see fit. So what’s my problem, then? Despite its potential as a motivator, SHOULD nevertheless does prejudge and jump to conclusions and cultivate discontent, and it’s time to break the chains of self-imposed condemnation masquerading as personal growth.

About 10 years ago, a friend told me about a non-Western culture where the concept of SHOULD HAVE just doesn’t exist. (SHOULD HAVE is SHOULD’s bleak future.) A quick Google search today turned up not even one crumb to follow, so I can’t verify that it’s true—but the idea is intriguing regardless and one I’ve never been able to shake. A woman in that culture, I was told, would never say at the end of her day, “I should have done such and such,” because the only reality—the only set of possibilities—is the one actually lived out, not one imagined or considered that I then failed to do in the time allotted. Can you imagine what our lives might be like if we released ourselves from the bondage of SHOULD and all those perceived expectations? If only we could rejoice in who we are and what we aspire to for no other reason than because it is so. (There’s value in that, you know, in embracing the me only I can be and the mix of ideas and passions and abilities only I can contribute.) But I’m not suggesting that we sit stagnant in an effortless, unchanging today, dreaming for little and lulled into listlessness. Instead, I propose we change the context of our narrative.

Let’s replace SHOULD with WANT.

I want to take piano lessons.

I want to teach English to resettled refugees.

I want to write a book.

See there? No judgment, no comparison to a mythical absolute. Just a desire, a dream, an impetus to — not an admonishing rebuke. Rather than focus on an anticipated failure, WANT honors me and my intent and acknowledges the value of the thing without convicting me for thinking it. WANT also tells the truth rather than allowing it to hide behind an opinion or a half-hearted effort to conform. So while SHOULD’s critical side undermines its otherwise noble cause—to motivate and inspire—WANT empowers, celebrating my instincts and aspirations while allowing me to own them, not the other way around.

What SHOULD are you most relieved to convert into a WANT today?


READ BETTINA’S TAKE: No more should!


  1. paulina
    Posted 05/01/2016 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    I want to be more patient with my children. I want to run more to better my health. I want to see my sisters more.

    Most impactful line: WANT also tells the truth rather than allowing it to hide behind an opinion or a half-hearted effort to conform.

    You have to decide you WANT it, and not just easily skirt the topic by saying you “should”. Thanks Claudia, it may be something about how we were raised, but I feel freer having read this. Have also wondered why the word ‘should’ is so prevalent in my vocabulary.

    I Want to get rid of Should.


    • Claudia
      Posted 05/01/2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      So glad it helped in some way. I think you’re absolutely right: intentionally deciding to WANT is the key.

  2. Ingrid
    Posted 05/07/2016 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    As long as we can be compassionate with ourselves and others maybe should won’t feel bad? Great writing, I enjoyed your post??

    • Claudia
      Posted 05/07/2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Really good point, Ingrid. Too bad being compassionate with ourselves isn’t quite as easy or popular as being compassionate with others. :/