This is the second in a series of posts based on Dale Carnegie’s writing and training. Find more information on his work, training, and free resources here.
Read the first post here.
I have a theory about how happy you are. It goes like this: count up the number of times in a day you say the word “should.” Think about your typical day. “I should go exercise this morning.” “I shouldn’t have had that piece of candy after lunch.” “I should call my mom.” “You should clean up this mess.” “I should be earning more by this point in my career.” “I should be able to figure this out; it’s not supposed to be this hard.”
My theory is that the more times you use the word “should” on a regular basis, the less happy you are. My experience has been that most of our everyday pain happens in the space between “should” and what follows. That’s because the word should implies that whatever ought to be happening isn’t, and that’s a formula for discontent. Here’s why the word “should” is so corrosive; the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of should is “Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.” Lots of should are spent criticizing our own actions – or lack of action.
Dale Carnegie has said: “Should” statements are meant to push us toward the perfect scenario, but should be followed by a realistic thought process that established the “As Is.” Once these are established, we should plan on how to get from where we are to the “should be.” Many times we just look at where we are and many assumptions like, “Everyone should have a three-year plan. I don’t so there must be something wrong with me.”
Dr. Soph, a registered Clinical Psychologist, writes at his blog: “Most of the time the idea of what we should do comes from a societal belief about the perfect person. Every time we see one of these [perfect person] images our brain internalizes it as the visual representation of what it looks like to be ‘good enough’, ‘lovable’ and/or ‘successful’. Our brain then spends its days comparing us to this level of perfection.” Sounds like a recipe for failure and frustration, doesn’t it?
The second problem with “should” is that it implies you have control over what happens, and that your idea of what should be happening is the best and correct one. When we talk about how other people should behave, we’re not respecting their independence to make their own decisions or do things their way. When we talk about the way things should be, we’re refusing to accept what is. Too much should-ing will make you very dissatisfied with how things are, prone to beating your head against a wall that might be very hard indeed.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, says: “It’s natural to move toward what feels good and away from what doesn’t, natural as well to have values, principles, and morals. But when these healthy inclinations become internal rules – “shoulds,” “musts,” and “gottas” – then there is a big problem. We feel driven, righteous, or like a failure. And we create issues for others… Plus, in a deep sense, your “shoulds” control you.”
He goes on to say: “when we face reality in all its messy streaming complexity, we see that it exists independent of our rules, always wiggling free of the abstractions we try to impose upon it. This recognition of truth pulls you out of conceptualizing into direct experiencing, into being with “the thing-in-itself.” Which feels clear, peaceful, and free.”
If you’d like an elegant reminder to help you give up your should habit, try this prayer you’ve heard a million times (credited to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ) “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”