Thinking Traps VIII – Shoulding

“They should’ve never had me lifting pallets. They should’ve admitted they stuffed up. And they should’ve never stopped paying for my chiropractor”. It was hard to argue with Gavin*. He had been a hard-working storeman and his employee hadn’t shown much care for him when he injured his back three years ago. “I have to live with this pain every day! They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this!”

Have you never felt stuck in a moment that you can’t get out of? Maybe it’s a breakup. Maybe a lost loved one. Maybe it’s a promotion that went to an undeserving college. When something happens, which is so unlucky or so unfair or so unexpected, we can feel like time and the universe have taken us on a perverse detour. Our mind struggles to regain its bearings – how did I come to be here? This shouldn’t be.

Clara* was beating herself up again. “I should never have called him. I’m such an idiot”. She’d met up with her abusive ex, Mark, again, and it hadn’t gone well. “I’ve shouldn’t be such a weakling, I’m pathetic!”

Have you ever felt angry or upset with yourself for not meeting your expectations? Maybe you’ve felt not smart enough. Or not strong enough. Or not nice enough. A hopelessness arises. There is a way I should be but I’m not. And nobody’s to blame except you. I shouldn’t be this way.

Should according to whom?

Who says you should or shouldn’t be a certain way? Where does the standard you’re comparing yourself come from? Who says that a certain unfortunate event shouldn’t have happened? Which law of the universe was broken when this event happened?

The word “should” sets a trap for us. This trap is called Denial. When we say “should” we are often saying – “I don’t accept the reality of this situation”. The opposite of denial is acceptance. Accepting reality doesn’t mean you have to like a harsh event; it just means that you have to acknowledge the facts rather than rebelling against them. You can never change until you’ve accepted the trap you are stuck in, and only then is change possible.

What Gavin meant to say was – “If I hadn’t gone back to work early, I probably wouldn’t have been so badly injured”. Once he acknowledged this reality, he was able to let go of some of his anger. Neither he, nor his employer, were to have known he would be injured. His employer probably didn’t really care that much, but they didn’t want him injured. It had been Christmas time and they wanted all available staff. They shouldn’t have let him work if their only priority was preventing any and all injuries. But they were a business, they also cared about making a profit. This might not be morally right – but it is reality of the situation.

What Clara meant to say was – “If I want to get over Mark more quickly, I shouldn’t call him. But it’s hard because part of me still loves him”. It would be nice if we could control ourselves enough to make only good decisions. But strong emotions such as anger and love have a powerful sway over us. It’s hard for anyone who is in love to stay away from the object of their desire, no matter how damaging that person is.  Once Clara accepted this reality she understood and accepted her own actions, even if they were the wrong ones. She felt less critical on herself and thus less distressed. And it was easier to make good decisions in her calmer state of mind.

Be careful of the word should. You could be dancing with denial. You could be expressing a hopeless wish that the world was fairer or less harsh than it had proven to be. You could be holding yourself to an unrealistic standard. Want to be friends with reality? Try adding an “If” to every “Should” statement. “I should … if I want to …”. “He shouldn’t have … if he wanted …”.


* names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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