5 minute read
The words we use change our perception of the world. And our perception of the world impacts how we feel about it.
Some words are notorious for inflaming emotions—and when we take a closer look, they often don’t even accurately describe what’s going on.
Case in point: When I say “literally no one loves me,” those words make me feel less loved. And deep down, I know they’re just not true.
There are three words that cause more unnecessary angst, unease, and desperation than most others.
They evoke feelings of inadequacy, regret, fear, powerlessness, and judgement. They add to our experience of misery, powerlessness, and a lack of compassion and connection. And we say them all the time:
Should. Could. Would.
“Should” is a shortcut meant to communicate advice or suggestions. Like most shortcuts, you can end up paying for it later.
Karen Horney, a groundbreaking psychologist in the early 20th Century, coined the phrase the “tyranny of the shoulds” to describe the negative feelings that arise when we vacillate between between our ideal selves versus our perceived selves and live under the oppressive influence of expectation.
“Should” implies an expectation—plus an obligation and, very often, a judgment of not being “good enough” when the expectation isn’t met:
- “I should get good grades.”
- “I should be in a better place by now.”
- “I should get what I want.”
- “I should go to the gym.”
- “I should be nice to everyone and never have a bad thought ever.”
Unmet expectations in both the future and the past can create shame in the self (“I didn’t do something I should have done”) and resentment of others (“They didn’t do something they should have done”).
When a “should” has a moral or obligatory intent, it doesn’t give us space to be fallible, or human. It usually doesn’t align with what we really believe. And inevitably, it makes us feel demoralized instead of motivated to make actual change.
It’s amazing what can happen when we shift the focus of “should” to what’s aligned with what we really want and our values:
- “I like getting good grades.”
- “I am working toward my goals.”
- “I like getting what I want, but I know it can’t happen all the time.”
- “I want to go to the gym because I feel better when I stay active.”
- “I value kindness and try to be nice to others as much as possible.”
It’s a wordier way of thinking or saying things, true. But it’s worth it. You aren’t unknowingly chipping away at your worth by implying that you’re not meeting an expectation. And the resulting perceptions—that you have agency and choices—leads to calmer and more internally motivated emotional responses.
“Could” is a shortcut meant to communicate ability and hypothetical possibilities or potential. It can also convey the oppressive and powerful force of too many options.
Our brains are scenario machines, constantly picking apart sequences from the past or playing out scenes from our future in an effort to understand every possible outcome of our choose-your own-adventure-lives.
Endless options and the implied what-if of “coulds” don’t always give us the space to think about the actual likelihood of an event, the pros and cons, and what we really want:
- “I could go out with friends—or stay home, or read a book, or walk the dog, or…ugh, it’s too overwhelming, I’ll just sit here and scroll through Instagram.”
- “I could fail this test!”
- “A meteor could hit Earth!”
- “I could get a disease.”
- “I could push this person right now—oh god, I could be a terrible person for even thinking that!”
Instead, try shifting your language to reflect what you want, your agency, your values and goals, and whether an event is even likely:
- “I have a ton of options, which is great. So, what are the three things I really want to accomplish today?”
- “A meteor might hit Earth, but I know that’s extremely unlikely.”
- “It’s possible that I’ll have a health issue at some point in my life, and if that happens I’ll work with my doctors and my support system.”
- “I could do anything at any point in time, and weird thoughts will flow through my head, but that doesn’t mean I will actually do it. Pushing that person doesn’t serve me—and it’s not something I really want to do anyway.”
When you focus on how the options fit into the life you want to live, you take power back from “could.”
“Would” is a word that describes how we might act in the future. It’s meant to convey how we may respond in unreal, unlikely, or imaginary situations.
Would can also be…kind of arrogant. It can distance us from other people, in the sense that it supposes how we might act differently—or better—than them.
In that way, would can evoke a sense of superiority (“I would never!”) or longing (“If I were them, I would…”) And it sometimes leads to judgement, regret, naive confidence, and resentment:
- “I would never act that way in their situation!”
- “I would totally be responsible with all of that money.”
- “I wouldn’t have done that had I known that at the time.”
- “I would just die if that happened!”
Woulds like these don’t give us the space to consider the fallibility or resilience of others, or ourselves.
When we focus instead on how we hope to be in the future, ways we might respond in different circumstances, and actions congruent with our goals, we allow ourselves to be more grounded and compassionate.
Try shifting “would” language to recognize the imaginary nature of the scenario, as well as the compassion, intention, and hope you may feel:
- “I hope I might act differently if that happened to me!”
- “It’s my intention to be responsible with money and opportunity.”
- “I didn’t have all the information to make the best decision. I want to do better next time.”
- “I can imagine how hard it might be if that happened, and I intend to use all my supports and resources if it did.”
We can always bring our words—and not just should, could, and would—back to what we want, and what aligns with our values.
Allow your language to reflect that more accurate truth. It will change how you feel for the better.
Midwest Counseling & Diagnostic Center can offer support. Our extensively trained, highly skilled therapists are down-to-earth, non-judgmental, and committed to helping you find the path forward on your journey. For more information, please contact us.