Should is a Four-Letter Word

visible vs. invisible church, Christian hypocrisy

Here is a bold assertion: should is a four-letter word.

Not technically, of course. I am literate and aware that there are six letters in it.

Allow me to explain briefly what I mean.

In polite society, the “four-letter word” refers to the naughtiest words among those raised with strict rules of conduct. I won’t dignify them by typing them out; hopefully, you know which I am referring to.

Let’s dissect this issue.

1. Why four-letter words are undesirable

Before I even make this point, I realize that it puts me at odds with a larger and larger portion of society that slips curse words in like common adjectives in conversation. I’m not here to judge that. But for the sake of conversation, let’s pretend it’s still the 1990s. Back then, using profanity was looked upon with more scorn than it is today.

All I aim to do is party like it’s 1999 and pretend all the stigma of cursing like a sailor is still a thing. From that perspective, four-letter words are undesirable.

So with that out of the way, let’s move on.

2. The mindset baggage of using “should”

My critique here is our thoughtless, stigma-informed use of the word.

Phrases like:

“I should eat healthier.”

“I should get a gym membership.”

“I should find a higher paying job.”

“I should stop dating losers.”

Or even the phrases we assign about others:

“The boss should be more appreciative of her employees.”

“That guy should lose some weight!”

“That restaurant should allow reservations!”

How do we decode the real meaning behind these statements?

The ones we say to ourselves indicate internal tension about something we think we should change.

The statements aimed at others indicate a dissatisfaction with the way someone or something is.

Are these things legit? Are they founded? The answer of a typical consultant is, “Maybe.” Or, “It depends.”

The point is, we often utter these things without a thought to the assumptions and baggage behind them. I’ve come to believe that it is valuable mental work to recognize when I say “should” and unpack it a bit.

So let’s unpack “should”

One of my college professors used to say, “Don’t should on yourself!” (Remember that four-letter word section? ;)) I thought that was entertaining and poignant.

Using the term carries with it an almost moral imperative. Or at least a guilt-ridden imperative. We’re assigning to ourselves or others what ought to be, based on a complex jumble of ideas.

For the person who says, “I should get a gym membership.” Why? Because it’s the thing to do? Because you might be able to meet new friends or find dates? Or are you looking to lose weight? Improve your health or lifestyle?

It’s important to analyze the underlying reason why you “should on yourself.”

For the person who “shoulds” on others, i.e., “That girl should lose some weight!” Or, “My husband should take me out to dinner more often!” Again, why?

Is there a particular reason it’s relevant to you if your cubicle neighbor needs to shed 30 pounds? Or are you just being judgy and petty? If you think your spouse or partner “should” take you on dates more often, there may be some sleuthing required. Do you feel unappreciated? Overworked? What does having a date night do for you, that an absence of them takes away? Is it possible that you’re influenced by the chronic eaters-out on your social media feed, and feel jealous?

I’m just asking questions, trying to get you to think about the root of your should-ing.

Reframing should as a four-letter word

I have attempted to establish so far:

1. Cursing is undesirable.

2. There is more to the loaded word “should” than we often think about. Thinking of it as a four-letter work could be helpful.

So 3. could be:

Treat yourself and others with kindness, and question the hidden assumptions behind “should.”

That’s not to say dismissing it when you feel rightly nudged to do something to improve your life is the correct course of action.

I’m merely suggesting that we would be wise to spend less time feeling guilty about our shoulds and more time thinking about the why behind them. From there, we can take meaningful action rather than operate out of a blind sense of obligation to an unknown.

Maybe even take a minute to write down what your subconscious is “shoulding” you into, and what a more meaningful takeaway could be.

Have you ever thought about the “shoulding” you are inflicting on yourself or others? Do you think it is a problem? If so, what will you do about it? I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts in a comment!

Thank you for reading!

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updated 9.23.23

2 responses to “Should is a Four-Letter Word”

  1. While applying “should” to ourselves has its own set of problems, I believe “shoulding” on others can be a bigger concern. It implies judgment–often unkind judgment– regarding others’ appearance, words, or actions. I think a better use of our time and effort is to focus on changing our OWN shortcomings. That will keep most of us busy!

    1. Well said!

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