“Shoulds” are like a bad book cover. We might avoid “content” that could benefit us.

I have written two Amazon bestselling books.  While the cover of my first book is adequate, I went out of my way with my second cover because I learned that people DO judge a book by its cover.

The aphorism “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” is true.

The problem is that we all judge books, people, restaurants etc by their “covers”. And, sometimes, we miss out.

Let me give you one example.

Joshua Bell is a world class violin player.  People pay good money to hear him perform in concert halls all over the world.  A few years ago, in an experiment, Mr. Bell went to a NY subway station, took out his million dollar Stradivarius violin and played several very difficult violin compositions.  For the most part, he was ignored.  Folks did say that he was somewhat better than the average solicitor of pocket change but few recognized the quality of the performance which they were being given. The “cover” or setting in which Mr. Bell was playing clearly impacted how his audience responded to him.  His music was exceptional.  His reception was not.

Not all street musicians are Joshua Bell.  Sometimes, they are just street musicians trying to make a buck.  And, that’s okay.

“Shoulds” are like book covers, or first impressions.  They can be misleading and result in our not responding to an underlying important piece of information.

What are the “shoulds”?

A “should” is any statement or belief that you say to yourself (or, for that matter, that someone else says to you) that goes something like this: ” I should do XYZ.”, “I need to do XYZ.” or “You should (or should not) do XYZ”.

Examples include: You should have known what I meant., How dare you (question me, get angry)., I need to go on a diet. , I must be a better husband (parent, brother, father, employee)., I should exercise more., and so forth.

Other words that might be substituted for “should” include “have to”, “must”, “need to”, etc.

By the way, “How dare you” implies that you should not have done whatever it is that you dared to do.

“Shoulds” are problematic for several reasons:

  1. they imply an absolute which does not necessarily exist.
  2. they tend to elicit an oppositional reaction
  3. they do not address the issue that needs attention


Think about it for a minute.

When you tell yourself, or someone tells you, that you “should” do XYZ, the statement implies:

  • You really have no options other than XYZ
  • The behavior being addressed is the only correct, acceptable, or even viable action that makes any sense
  • You are wrong, misguided, exercising poor judgement or  crazy to have done or to consider doing (or not doing) XYZ.

Oppositional Reaction

When someone tells you that you should do XYZ, your first reaction (before you take the time to think about it) is to resist.

This is true in part because the should is perceived as a command and most of us do not like to be told what to do. A “should” tends to elicit comments such as: “No, I don’t”, or “Who gave you the right to make demands on me?” or “Try and make me.”

OK, I admit that the above comments seem somewhat immature but I am trying to capture the intent of the resistance to a “should”.  The exact words used to express this resistance are less important.

The critical issue here is that this resistance to a “should” happens whether the “should” is directed at you by someone else or is your own assertion directed at yourself.

How many times have you told yourself that you should do XYZ (let’s stipulate that XYZ is indeed something that is in your best interest to pursue like exercise or losing weight or reconciling with an estranged friend) and then resisted, procrastinated, avoided or made excuses for not doing XYZ?

Probably, lots of times.  I know I have.

Sometimes XYZ is something that we would benefit from.  This leads us to the third, and most important reason that “shoulds” can be insidious.

Avoiding the Issue

This is the most important reason for learning how to deal with “shoulds” because it may result in your not responding to an important situation which, if recognized, would be most beneficial to you.

A “should” implies that a critical issue such as weight, health (medical/dental), exercise, doing an important task which you’ve been avoiding, has been recognized, clearly summarized, is beyond question, and will be both prioritzed and completed.

In other words, the “should” is wrongly interpreted as a “marching order” that  you are compelled to carry out.  “Should” implies “Done”.

Except it doesn’t!

The real issue that needs to be addressed is the compulsive reason underlying your actions to avoid XYZ.  If XYZ is so important, and we are assuming it is, how do you justify not doing it?

Not all “shoulds” will lead us to actions that, when taken, prove to be beneficial.

Sometimes, “shoulds” are just unreasonable demands others direct toward us or unreasonable demands we make of ourselves due to a desire to fit in or meet some social or personal expectation.

The goal is to be able to tell the difference. We want to recognize our “Joshua Bells”.

The Antidote to “Shoulds”: Skip the demand and focus on the relevance of the task.

  • Ask yourself a question.

Ask yourself “Why is it in my best interest to do XYZ?”

This may sound silly but your brain is a question answering machine.  It will give you a bunch of reasons why XYZ is good for you.  By the way, if you’ve ever said to yourself, “How could I be so stupid (or similar)?”, you might want to reconsider your words. Do you really want your brain to inform you about how you are stupid?  I don’t think so.

  • Change your approach.

Toward you...

Instead of telling yourself you “should” do XYZ, remind yourself that doing XYZ will benefit you, is important to you, will pay dividends etc.

Instead of “I should exercise.” say “I choose to exercise.”

Toward someone else…

In response to someone else telling you that you should do XYZ, ask them “On what are you basing your comment that I should do XYZ?”  Maybe, you will learn something about XYZ that you didn’t know before and choose to do it.

In summary:

I can just about guarantee that there will be “shoulds” in your life going forward, both from others to you and from you to yourself.

You can’t avoid them.  And, you don’t have to.

You master your emotions as tools by validating them and assessing their message, and choosing your response.

It is the same with “shoulds”.  Accept them, question their message (the value to you of XYZ and choose your response.

I welcome  your comments.



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