No More Should!

Posted by : | April 30, 2016

There was a day this past winter when I was housebound by a blizzard. Driving was dangerous, schools were closed, and events canceled. I couldn’t have gone out anyway as persistent winds kept blowing the snow into deep drifts across my long driveway, despite the repeated returns of the snowplow. An unexpected day with hours of uninterrupted time invitingly stretched out before me. I thought of all the enjoyable things I could do; reading by the fire, baking cookies, sorting through pictures, or even some Netflix binging. But then I remembered the cluttered basement with boxes scattered randomly across the floor and the still to be put away christmas ornaments piled haphazardly on the rarely used ping pong table. I should spend my time putting all that away. I should have done it weeks ago. I should’t have let it get that bad in the first place. I shouldn’t own so much stuff. I should be more organized. I should, I should, I should…The day that had started out so full of anticipation had become a day of drudgery.

The dreaded should, followed closely by should have, and mixed together with a lot of dread and regret and guilt, pulls us into in a bottomless black abyss called Shame. How often I become trapped by what I think I should be doing or of what I should have done. The lists of should dos are relentless in their urgency, demanding my full attention and filling me with self-condemnation. I should exercise more. I should get more sleep. I should not waste time online. I should be kinder. I should be a better wife, mother, sister, friend, worker. I should, in short, be perfect, and I am ashamed that I am not.

Should is not a positive word. It does not encourage or build up. On the contrary, it is guilt-producing. If I should do something then it must mean I am doing something wrong. It is not motivating. As soon as I hear or think that I should do something I immediately don’t want to do it! The dictionary defines should as a word that is used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions. So should is really criticism in disguise. No wonder we don’t like the word. Should also indicates a desirable or expected state, a state, I think, we often mistake as perfection.

Isn’t trying to be perfect what this is really about? Why else do we recoil inwardly when we hear should? The very use of it tells us we are not enough, that we have no value unless we lose weight or have a clean house or are the best mothers or the hardest workers. We impose an impossible standard of correctness on ourselves and are embarrassed when we don’t achieve it. Our should do lists can never be completely finished nor can we ever live up to the expectations of what we think we should be or what we think others think we should be. We are driven by duty rather than desire. In keeping up with the demands of should we lose who we are, operating out of obligation rather than purpose and never fully engaging in life.

The should haves are even harsher. Our failures lead us to linger long in shame and self-reproach. We replay our memories repeatedly just as the menu page on a dvd does with the scenes of a movie, our failures flashing before us in one continuous loop. We imagine ourselves making different choices, almost like backwards dreaming. Oh, what could have been had we not made the choices we did. I should have never changed my major. I should have taken that semester abroad. I should have pursued jobs elsewhere. I should have followed my dreams years ago instead of waiting until now. Just think of  where I might be today. Entertaining such thoughts can send me into a downward spiral of deep regret.

We live caught between remorse over our past and high expectations for our future. We are as trapped by our feelings as I was by the blizzard that kept me home that winter day. The untamed wind of our thoughts buries us so deeply in regrets and assumptions that the seeds of our desires and passions never take root. How do we become free from this tyranny of should? Responsibilities cannot be shirked. Bills need to be paid, doctors appointments kept, jobs done, children cared for. And as often as we reimagine the actions of our past we can’t go back and redo them and we do live with the reality of our consequences. But do we need to live in the shadow of should?

Maybe we need to ban the use of should. The old chant about sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt me is not true. Words hurt.  I don’t remember the pain of my broken arm when little but I do remember the humiliation of my sixth grade teacher mocking me for giving the wrong answer or the hurt from a friend accusing me of being a liar and a gossip. Words affect our thoughts and emotions profoundly. The most damaging ones can be the ones we use with ourselves. Should is such a word. How about using like or want or can instead?  I like having a clean house because it helps me stay focused. I want to get fit so I can be healthier. I can show love for my family by caring for their needs. When I think this way I don’t think of the things that need to be done as duty or as criticism of my shortcomings . Instead, I am motivated to do them. There is a great  picture of Barbara Bush walking her dogs on the beach in Maine while using a walker. Her son, George, writes in Barbara Bush:A Memoir that, “Her message is, Walk life’s beaches for as long as you can.” I love this. I will do things because I can, not because I should!

Perspective helps shed the shoulds of my past. I see my decisions  in a new light. My semester abroad did not happen partly because of the deep relationships I had formed . I changed my major because I was realizing that the cutthroat newswriter career that I was pursuing might not be conducive to the family life I dreamed of having. I stayed in CNY after graduation in order to be involved with mentoring college students. I willingly put my dreams on hold to help my daughter through some very tough circumstances, because her well being, along with her brother’s, was more important than any accomplishments or accolades. I see now that I was often guided through my decisions by a compass of faith and friendship and my desire to grow in both of them. Perspective also helps me see how the myriad of mistakes and failures lining my past have made me more vulnerable and approachable and more capable of having the deep relationships I desire.

Did is also a  word we need to use more. We focus on what we should have done and not on what we did. I didn’t get to be a renowned journalist but I did get to work with inner city teens and become an advocate for the hungry in rural areas. I did discover that I was good at teaching and I have had many rich and rewarding teaching experiences.  I may not have spent that semester abroad but I did live in Colombia for a month while finalizing our daughter’s adoption and I have had incredible travel adventures such as riding the Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris, flying in a four seater into the tiny San Blas Islands of Panama, and ushering in the New Year in Moscow. The dreams and goals I put on hold have only gotten stronger and more defined through the struggles and challenges of the last years. I did accomplish much despite my failures. When I see all things I did do, the things I think I should have done fade into nothingness.

That snowbound day is long gone. I don’t even remember how I spent my time. Now it is spring and the sun is shining and the day is beckoning me to join it. How will I use the time before me? Will I stay bound by the criticizing voices of should or will I be free to enjoy life? Will I live under obligation or will I do the things that feed my soul? I think I will follow the advice of Psalm 31:2 as written in The Message. “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be––you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.” There is no should in that!


READ CLAUDIA’S TAKE: May I have a word?


  1. Anne Brandolini
    Posted 05/05/2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I never knew you went to Moscow. Like and want are a much better way to look at life. Great blog!

    • Bettina
      Posted 05/05/2016 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I am glad you liked it.

  2. Ingrid
    Posted 05/07/2016 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Very nicely written. I once heard an expression “don’t should on yourself”! Enjoy the sunshine??

    • Bettina
      Posted 05/08/2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Ingrid. I like that quote. I will have to remember it.

  3. Mary Grajko
    Posted 05/07/2016 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    That blew me away, Bettina! You have an amazing self-awareness, I’m sure hard-won. And your ability to articulate it is nothing short of genius. My favorite quote from your piece is “The untamed wind of our thoughts buries us so deeply in regrets and assumptions that the seeds of our desires and passions never take root”. Beautifully said, my friend. You are a real encouragement to many, myself included!

    • Bettina
      Posted 05/08/2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      Thank you so much, Mary. I am really enjoy writing this blog and I am glad that others like yourself are finding encouragement in reading it.

  4. Gail Tremblay
    Posted 05/18/2016 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Before I say, I should have read this earlier, I want to tell you I so enjoy reading your thoughts which give me inspiration to use that different vocabulary to just be grateful for what I have accomplished no matter how big or small! There are a lot of things that I perhaps should have done or should do but I definitely like the idea of getting and choosing to do others more important.
    Thanks, Bettina. Love, your interested cousin, Gail