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Should Is a Shame-based Word, So Stop Using It
I confess, I’m on a crusade to eliminate the word “should”—and its brethren “must, need, ought, have to, am supposed to” and “shouldn’t”—from the English language. Well, actually from every language. To learn the basics of why these words are contraindicated as motivators that will lead to “normal” eating and why, as comedian and educator Loretta LaRoche says, it’s time to stop “shoulding on ourselves,” read my blog, “Shoulds,” at http://eatingdisordersblogs.com/?p=4809.
Should is an invented concept that is employed to cause us to feel shame. If people say you “should” do something and you don’t, or that you “shouldn’t” and you do, they mean—intentionally or unintentionally—to shame you into behaving the way they want you to behave. Who made up all these rigid rules about what we’re expected to do: our parents, grandparents, society, religion, government, the first Homo sapiens?
Remember that shoulds and shouldn’ts are arbitrary standards agreed upon by the few or the many to encourage conformity (for better or worse). When your parents insist that you “must” or “need to” make your bed, save money, study hard, and not sass them, they want you to feel and believe that you are bad, unacceptable, or immoral (or, at best, a disappointment) if you don’t. If parents, teachers, cultural icons, religious leaders, etc. make you feel that you’re bad, they expect you to be so ashamed that you will do as they say to feel better about yourself. They’re telling you that you dare not think for yourself—and perhaps even come to the same conclusion they have come to, for that matter—but must blindly obey what ought and ought not be done.
When we do things that we’re told we should do, we usually feel quite pleased with ourselves, especially when the behavior involves self-denial or self-sacrifice or plain old discomfort. Moreover, we may even feel morally superior to people who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We too often believe that when we do what authority figures tell us we should do, that we are loftier than those goof offs who aren’t doing it. Alternately, when we do things others say we shouldn’t do, we feel naughty and often rebellious, but mostly ashamed. We believe that we disappoint others and ourselves when we fail to comply with the “should” or “shouldn’t” directive. Bad girl, bad boy.
We live days or years or entire lives in shame because we’re not what we think we’re supposed to be because we haven’t lived up to internalized shoulds and shouldn’ts. The more we insist that we “ought” or “ought not” do something, the stronger internalization becomes until it becomes indistinguishable from our true wants. Such imperative directives crush our spirits, passions, and ability to learn from our mistakes. Every time we bully ourselves to do something, we infantilize ourselves, when, ironically, we might have come to the same conclusion to do or not do something by recognizing that we’re conflicted and wish to sort things out in a way that enhances our lives and makes us feel proud. Because we experience feeling conflicted as uncomfortable, external directives relieve internal tension by giving us a “right” direction to move in, whether it’s what we authentically desire or not.
All we have is the desire to do and not to do, or the desire to do A and it’s opposite, Z. We want to drink diet soda because we enjoy the taste and don’t want to because we know it’s not healthy for our bodies. We want to go to the gym to work out and also want to stay home and sleep in. We want to pay our monthly visit to our cranky uncle and want to go out dancing with our friends. All fine, all normal. It’s natural to have opposing desires, just a part of being human. There’s not a shred of shame in it. There’s only shame when we make drinking diet soda or going to the gym or seeing our uncle a moral issue that is framed by must and need to, turning us into an alleged good or bad person.
Start thinking of words like should as a way to shame yourself into behaving a certain way. Does shaming yourself work to change behavior or to get you to act in your best interest? Or does it make you resentful and goad you to do its opposite? What’s your history of self-shame leading to transformation and ongoing success? For most dysregulated eaters, achievement built on a “shouldy” foundation is short-lived and bound to crumble. “Should” and “shouldn’t” are shame-based words that have no place in learning to eat “normally” or take care of your body. They are not words that honor and respect you. They show no compassion or kindness. In fact, you’d be far better off and farther along on the road to recovery without them.