"Should" Alternatives

Jul. 16th, 2018

Many have written about the possible negative aspects of the word “should”. I was first introduced to this concept when my family was learning about Non-Violent Communication. The word “should” is often an extremely violent one, Marshall Rosenberg taught us. I completely agree. Often the word indicates we are not accepting reality or that there is a lot of pressure involved. Neither of these circumstances are beneficial to those of us with ADHD.

When I first bring up the topic of the word “should” with clients, often they ask or try to figure out what word is “ok” or “safe” to use instead. The thing is that it’s not only about the words we use.

For example, I don’t consider it harmful for someone helping me fix my computer to say “Try doing this and it should work.” They are obviously not trying to emotionally manipulate my laptop into compliance. They are saying in their experience, the course of action they’ve suggested is most likely going to solve the problem I’m having.

It’s also sometimes helpful to substitute the word “could” for “should” because it can make the option truly an option. The thing is if we are still carrying the weight or feeling of that “should”, changing the word won’t make any difference. We will still be applying and feeling an unhelpful amount of pressure.

So here’s my favorite question to dissolve the toxicity of “should”: what do I mean when I used the word “should”? I often ask myself this question, I’ve asked it of clients, and I’ve even asked it of family (sorry guys, hazards of being related to a coach).

There could be infinite numbers of answers to this question, depending on the sentence or thought that contained “should”. One that I often find myself thinking is “it would benefit me if I...”. In other words, when I think “I should do yoga regularly” what I actually mean is “it would benefit me to do yoga regularly”. The first one attempts to use guilt to manufacture a theoretically desirable outcome and the second simply makes a factual statement, devoid of emotion.

Another example is instead of “This game should be working.” I can say “The fact that this game isn’t working is a circumstance other than how I want reality to be.”. You’ll notice that the substitutes are much longer than using the word “should” by itself. That’s something I’ve noticed about healthier thought patterns and speech, they aren’t as pithy.

Yet another example: “I should attend the party” becomes “I feel pressure to attend the party”. Again, the first statement is pressure being applied in order to create a theoretically desirable outcome. The second statement is a simple statement of fact.

Another way to examine the harmful thinking behind using the word “should” is asking the following question: “What is it I want to happen?” In the first example, my answer is “I want to have greater flexibility so I won’t have as much pain as I age”. In the second example, my answer is “I want to play this game”. In the third example, my answer is “I want to be seen as a social and connected individual” or maybe “I want to avoid the fallout of being absent from the party”.

Examining the answer can give us insight into not only what pressure or lack of acceptance is going on, but also what impact various choices might have on us. If my major reason for attending a party is to avoid something or to maintain an appearance, rather than genuine interest, that is something I very much want to stop to consider.

Another huge reason I use the word “should” in my language to myself is as a motivator. This is not helpful for me nor I suspect for ADHD people in general. Guilt can be effective in getting us to do some things, but in my experience it is short lived and comes as a high cost to us, to any relationships involved, and/or to the quality of the outcome. It also takes a huge amount of emotional and mental energy to maintain.

When we use the word “should” as a motivator, we are trying to highlight the reasons why doing that thing would be of benefit. The problem is the ADHD brain does not operate on how important something is. We naturally operate on how urgent something is. And they are not at all the same. We are aware of importance and probably believe it (oh boy) “should” motivate us to take action. It simply does not, however. This means in order for something to happen, an alternative motivator must be in play which will be effective in activating our brains.

The basic principle here is pausing to examine our thinking. Interrupting the automatic thought processes. That is where healthier thinking has a chance to start.

What do you mean when you use the word “should”?