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What to do with the “Shoulds” and “Shouldn’ts”

the should'sI don’t know about you, but I have a list of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” that grows longer every day. For instance –

  • He shouldn’t have cut me off on the freeway.
  • She should be a better listener.
  • He should pay me more for the work I do.
  • She should exercise and eat better.

There are plenty more where those came from too.

Until I attended Byron Katie’s The School for the Work last month, I thought this list was actually helpful.

I thought it was a useful exercise to re-script the daily activities and choices of others.

I quite naturally – without ever once questioning myself – assumed that if others would only seek out my input, their lives would instantly become so much more productive and enjoyable.

I also assumed that if those around me understood that what they were doing was something they shouldn’t be doing, or that what they weren’t saying was exactly what they should be saying, then my life would become more productive and enjoyable too.

Neither, I have discovered, is even remotely close to the truth.

The truth is that those shoulds and shouldn’ts haven’t ever been and aren’t ever going to be helpful to others, but they are my best friends and teachers, because they teach me where I need to work on areas of insecurity, doubt, anger, stress, fear, grief, hope, or longing in my own life.

When I begin to hear the word “should” or “shouldn’t” running like a familiar refrain through my mind, it is an immediate signal that I need to stop, listen, then turn the statement around towards my own life.

“She shouldn’t wear that” thus becomes “I shouldn’t wear that”, and I get to investigate what in me is so fragile in my own skin that I can’t feel at ease or comfortable witnessing the outfit of the person standing next to me.

“He should drive more carefully” then becomes “I should drive more carefully” and I get to take a look at my own driving habits and, as they might say in Twelve Step circles (and quite literally in this case), “clean up my side of the street”.

Or at least my lane.

Those who are religious might correlate this to the encouragement Jesus gave to “remove the plank in our own eye” before attempting to dislodge the speck in our neighbor’s eye.

Regardless of the connotation, it would appear that every judgment, every correction, every condemnation inevitably points back to me.

As Katie says, “I welcome all my thoughts as teachers and friends”.

Today, post-School for the Work, I am learning to do this too.

Today’s Takeaway: Throughout the day today, keep a log of all the thoughts you have that begin with or include the words “should” or “shouldn’t”. At the end of the day, re-read your list. How long is it? How many of the people you encountered (include yourself in this) are represented on your list? How can you begin to turn those statements back towards yourself and in the process create a kinder, more accepting world for you and those around you to live in?

Photo by Mahalie Stackpole, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

What to do with the “Shoulds” and “Shouldn’ts”

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Songwriter. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2011). What to do with the “Shoulds” and “Shouldn’ts”. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Apr 2011
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