Wednesday 20 October 2021

Examine Your Shoulds: Why It's a Word You Shouldn't Use

So again, it’s time to examine your “shoulds.” “Shoulds” are so often the assimilated wants of other people and of your culture.

— Philippa Perry, The Guardian, October 17, 2021

This article was inspired by a short exchange on social media. I said I’d completed one blog post and was pondering what to write next. A friend replied: “Write about pondering what to write!” It brought a smile, reminding me of the time I was struggling to write, and ended up writing about exactly that. I smiled too, because I’d had to consciously avoid saying “I’m pondering what I should write about next.” That word — should — slips so readily into our sentences, even when we know we should avoid it. Ooops. See what I mean?

Perhaps you’re wondering what all the fuss is about. What’s wrong with should? It’s a word. It is, indeed. It can be used in a variety of ways but they tend to fall into one of two categories.

  • Implying a sense of duty or imperative. (I should have phoned my mother yesterday.)
  • Implying a sense of what will probably happen. (I think it should rain this afternoon.)

I’m going to focus on the first of those. It’s easy to tell when we’re using the word this way because there are implied rules or standards, consequences, and judgments. 

Statement: I should have phoned my mother yesterday.

Rule: family members are expected to be there for each other.

Consequence: disappointment, guilt, censure.

Judgment: I’m a bad person.

Let’s take a look at this in a little more detail.

Rules and Standards

If we were clear about the rules and standards were invoking, I’d have less of an issue with the word should. The problem is, they mostly go unspoken because we assume they’re obvious, absolute, and universal. More often than not, this is not the case. The rules I’m thinking about come in three main flavours: legal, moral and religious, and societal or cultural.

Legal rules

These are the most straightforward. You shouldn’t steal because it’s illegal and if you get caught you could face penalty or jail. You shouldn’t kill, injure, or assault people, for the same reason. Legal rules are more or less obvious, in that we tend to know and understand the laws that govern us. They are absolute and not open to individual interpretation. In principle at least, they apply universally within the relevant jurisdiction. We may be ignorant of the law, or choose to disobey the rules, but we cannot exempt ourselves from them.

Moral and religious rules

Expressed simply, these rules cover how “good people” and “bad people” behave. More generally, they define what we mean by good and bad. Excluding any which may be enshrined in law, they are matters of personal choice, acceptance, and adherence. Whatever your upbringing, beliefs, and opinions, it’s unwise — and frankly disrespectful — to assume other people adhere to exactly the same rules you do.

Cultural and societal rules

These include the often unspoken rules of acceptable (or civilised) behaviour. There may be an overlap with those in the moral/religious sphere, but these tend to be more local or even personal in nature. Organisations, social groups, and communities often have their own standards of behaviour. Some may be written down, such as workplace policies on time-keeping, absence, dress code, bullying, and harassment. Others are generally undocumented but no less important, such as water-cooler etiquette, the taking of coffee or smoking breaks, or any of a hundred unspoken rules that will be familiar to anyone working in that environment. Within the group, they’re accepted as “how things are.”

Why Does This Matter?

We absorb and adapt the rules we’re presented with. We may reject, ignore, or adapt some, justifying this to ourselves as being pragmatic or sensible. These modified rules become part of our personal rule book, governing how we believe it’s acceptable to behave.

Every should (or shouldn’t) is a judgment on our behaviour or the behaviour of others. It’s valid to hold people to account, but we cannot assume someone acknowledges, accepts, or adheres to the same rules and standards. What is obviously the right thing to me may be irrelevant or invalid to you, and vice versa.

This is a problem, because judging people against rules they neither recognise nor accept is the basis of stigma, discrimination, and division. From the opposite perspective, being held accountable to other people’s rules fosters resentment, anger, guilt, worthlessness, and despair.

Shoulds in the Mental Health Arena

This is never more important than when we’re talking about mental health. It’s natural to want to help when someone we know is struggling, but well-meaning comments and suggestions are rendered toxic by the injudicious use of should.

You should call the doctor.

You should take your meds.

You should go for a walk.

You should tidy this place, it’s a mess.

None of these statements makes clear what rule is being broken, but each implies the person is failing to care for themself properly. There’s no attempt to understand what’s going on for them, or find out what help they actually need. We may feel we’re being supportive but all we’ve conveyed is our negative judgment. All we’ve achieved is to convince the other person we’ve no idea how to help.

We can do better than this.

There’s no one right way to support someone (Fran and I wrote a book to share ways we find helpful) but here are a few alternatives that avoid the dreaded “s” word. (For a discussion of other “s” words, including stigma, suicidality, and self-harm, check this article.)

Example 1

Instead of: You should call the doctor.

Try: Things don’t seem to have improved for you in the past couple of days. Do you think it’s worth checking in with your doctor?

You might suggest arranging the appointment or going with them, if you feel that might be helpful.

Example 2

Instead of: You should take your meds.

Try: Sometimes when I have tablets from the doctor I find it hard to remember to take them at the proper times. It’s just a thought but I’m happy to message you a reminder each morning/night, if you’d find it helpful. Just let me know.

This is something I’ve asked several friends at different times. Some have been grateful to receive a reminder, others have politely declined. Be clear that you’re offering a reminder or check-in only; the responsibility for taking the medication remains with them.

Example 3

Instead of: You should go for a walk.

Try: Do you fancy some company? It’s a bit chilly out but it might be nice to go for a walk to the shops if you feel up to it. We could go for a coffee while we’re out, if you like.

It’s often said that exercise is good for our mental health. That may be true, but it’s unhelpful to tell someone they should get out more when they can barely muster the energy to get out of bed, if they are in physical pain, or live with mental or physical conditions which make it hard to be active.

Example 4

Instead of: You should tidy this place, it’s a tip.

Try: Would you like some help with decluttering or putting things away? I could come round for an hour or so tomorrow if that works for you.

Offers of practical help are likely to be far more welcome than expressions of disappointment and disgust. The other person is probably aware of what needs doing, but may feel overwhelmed at the thought of dealing with it, or not know how to start.

At all times, be aware of the implicit judgment behind your words, and the behavioural rules you’re invoking. How relevant are they to the person you’re talking to? What concern for their health, wellbeing, safety, or happiness are you trying to convey? Is there a better way of saying it? Sometimes the simplest way of rephrasing an impending should is to keep your mouth shut!

Remember that you’re sharing your opinion or personal take on things. Invite the other person’s opinion and be open to the possibility they may disagree.

It seems to me that ...

What I’m thinking is ...

From my perspective ... But maybe you see things differently?

When you did that last time, things didn’t seem to work out the way you hoped they would. Is that right?

Express your thoughts and concerns, and explain what you see as potential consequences. But don’t guilt-trip them into complying with your wishes just because you disagree with how they’re living their life. They may have far more going on in their lives than you’re aware of or can understand.

The only exception is where you believe they may be in crisis or at risk of harming themselves or others. That is a judgment call and you won’t always get it right, but if the situation appears critical encourage them to engage with appropriate support. You may need to do so yourself if they’re unable or unwilling. You can find a range of international crisis and support lines on our resources page.

Don’t Should Yourself

I’ve focused on using (or rather, trying not to use) the word should when talking to other people, but the arguments are just as valid when we’re talking to or about ourselves.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we should do this or that, or should have behaved differently in the past, without realising what rules we’re holding ourselves to, or why. There’s a strong possibility they’re rules we grew up with, or accepted along the way, without ever challenging them or checking if they remain valid for us. Behavioural rules are often based on putting other people’s needs before our own. Ask yourself who the rules benefit, especially if you find yourself feeling guilty because you can’t live up to them.

That doesn’t mean rejecting all rules out of hand, of course. Like the stories we tell ourselves, we’ve acquired them for a reason and many will still be relevant, appropriate, or necessary. Whether legal, moral, or cultural, they’re part of the structure or our lives, our societies, and our world.

This article isn’t really about the word should at all. It’s a word. Use it if you must. Just be clear about which rules are important to you, and accept that not everyone’s going to agree with you. And be gentle, with other people and yourself. No one gets it right all the time. We break the rules, for a thousand reasons; some justifiable, some not so much. Being told we should have done differently is never kind, empathetic or helpful.

So, the next time you’re about to should yourself or someone else, stop. Take a breath. Consider what you really want to say, and express it differently.

You really should.


Photo by TungCheung, with thanks to Janet Coburn for help sourcing the image.



  1. I wrote once about not knowing what to write. Perhaps you'll find it amusing.

    1. Oh Janet, I love your post - it's wonderful and I can so relate!