The worst word is not what you might expect. It’s not a curse word, or an insulting word, or a hateful word. It’s not even the word ‘hate’ itself.
The worst word is ‘should’.
‘Should’ causes all kinds of pain in our lives, and in fact is often at the root of the worst things – including all crimes and war. Trying to make the world (or others) what we think they ‘should be’ is a path to pain. The same is true when we apply ‘should’ to ourselves.
‘Should’ as it Applies to Ourselves
There are two ways we typically use ‘should’ in relation to ourselves. The first is in how we think we should be, and how we are falling short of that expectation. I should…eat healthier, exercise more, quit that bad habit, write that letter, finish that project, and on and on it goes.
This is damaging self-talk. It’s just self-critical, and we do it far too frequently, often on a constant basis. That’s harmful to our confidence and our well-being. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Having high expectations of ourselves, or goals for self-improvement, is wonderful. There’s no need to abandon the high expectations. We simply change ‘should’ to ‘will’. I WILL…eat healthier, exercise more, finish that project…today! Starting right now!
This shift in language empowers us to move forward in life.
The difficult part is committing to it, deciding to be accountable for finishing the project or having lower cholesterol. That’s the scary part, because…uh-oh…now failure is possible! That’s terrifying for most people, but that’s a fear that is quickly overcome with action. And unlike being stuck in ‘I should’, ‘I will’ moves us forward, positively, and allows us to become the people we think we ‘should’ be.
Commitments to Others
The other way we use ‘should’ is to escape commitments to others. It’s a way to soften or hedge, with clever language. “I should be there at around 5-5:30pm today”. When we say something like that, we’re saying “you can’t hold me accountable for actually making it on time”.
We use should in these situations to avoid having to commit to an outcome (and potentially disappoint someone or fail). I should be there on time, I should have it done by the deadline, I should have enough money to afford it by then…etc. But since I didn’t say I WILL, I’m safe. Again the solution here is to swap ‘I will’ for ‘I should’. And yes, it’s definitely scarier to say “I will”, but that only forces us to deal more with reality, and tell it like it is. It also pushes us to make it happen, and that’s a very powerful, positive shift to make in life.
When we use ‘should’ about ourselves and our commitments, it’s a hurtful, regretful, and weak way to speak about ourselves and to engage with others. Simply replacing ‘I should’ with the much more bold and powerful ‘I will’ changes us. It empowers us, pushes us to be honest about life, and drives us to be true to ourselves and others. It makes us better.
‘Should’ as it Applies to Others (and the world at large)
Perhaps more importantly, we use the word ‘should’ to describe how the world ought to be.
This is harmful.
Declaring that the world, or others, ‘should’ be a certain way is a departure from reality. And unlike when we use it inwardly, we are less able to change the external world or other people. Sure, we can nudge things our way. We can sue someone who acted recklessly toward us (although it doesn’t change the outcome), we can protest for a cause, fight a war, go on strike, fire people, complain, speak to the manager, yell, kick, scream, criticize, all of it. And sure, sometimes that’s appropriate, although less often than we think, and even less likely that it actually changes anything. Often those pushbacks are about trying to feel better, not changing the situation. Changing the world around us typically takes much more commitment than filing a complaint, doing a walk for cancer, or even donating a few bucks or a few hours of our time.
Often the best stance in the face of ‘bad things’ happening is simple acceptance. Sounds odd. How can we just accept bad things?
While acceptance may sound heartless or foolish, it actually takes high level skills like forgiveness, letting go, finding perspective, ignoring pain, staying disciplined, remaining focused on what’s important and what we can control, and so on. Whether it’s being dealt a bad hand in poker – or in life – accepting it with a smile is a very high level skill. Sports team didn’t win (or the victim of one bad call)? Didn’t get that raise? Car broke down? It rained on your picnic? Got a diagnosis of terminal cancer? All the same. The solution is simply accepting those things. It’ll happen eventually anyway. How long it takes is up to us. How long will we fret before we smile again? How much life will we waste being angered, frustrated, or bothered before we get back to being happy? That’s totally up to us. We are in full control – or at least we can be, with practice.
So what about things that don’t affect us directly, but we find just as upsetting, like mass shootings or natural disasters or injustices we become aware of around the world. Again, acceptance here is often the appropriate reaction, especially if we have no plans to take action or no way to change things. If we are simply bothered by it, then the solution is right in front of us – accept it as part of the amazing thing that is ‘life’. All of it. Death, tragedy, injustice, suffering, love it. Life is not just good when it’s pretty and loving and peaceful. Truly loving (and understanding) life is unconditional. Life can feel wonderful and amazing, and it can also feel disgusting, horrible, tragic, defeating, and painful. That’s the larger view of life as a whole. Acceptance is simply seeing it all as part of the experience.
Deciding that you will only like ‘good things’ in life, and you will be upset by ‘bad things’ is childish – happy when it’s cookies, crying when it’s broccoli. If we are only happy when things meet our ideals, then we’re not really seeing life as it is. We are instead continually comparing life to a fabrication, and it will always disappoint. It’s actually the definition of delusion. It’s a mental disorder.
de·lu·sion·al :: dəˈlo͞oZH(ə)nəl :: adjective
1. characterized by or holding idiosyncratic beliefs or impressions that are contradicted by reality, typically as a symptom of mental disorder.
We can break out of this delusion by remembering just how incomprehensibly lucky we are to be alive, and not spending a moment of that precious time wishing things were different or fit a certain expectation.
What about action?
This is not to say action is never warranted. For one thing, practicing acceptance is in itself an action – actively applying perspective. It takes effort, especially at first, and it’s why most people simply choose to complain, be sad, or allow ‘bad things’ to overwhelm their mood and affect their happiness. So acceptance itself is action, and almost always the only thing we need to spend our effort on.
But if you should find something in life to be truly unacceptable, whether it’s causing you pain directly, or see it hurting others, following acceptance is action. First acceptance, then action. We do have the ability to change the world around us, if we do so with the right mindset, and we act with all of our intelligence, wisdom, skills, and strength. When bad things happen to (and in the presence of) strong-willed people, and they find it unacceptable, they take action to overcome it, transform it, find a way through it, and even use it as fuel or opportunity for greater progress. We all have the ability to do that.
When we do decide action is the best course, know that changing the world is indeed possible – but only from doing everything it takes, for as long as it takes. Short of that, half-measures and half-hearted contributions to temporary solutions are not effective. They’re TUMS for an upset tummy, they make us feel a little better. In those cases, our efforts are much better put to mastering the art of not becoming upset in the first place.
The vast majority of ‘bad’ things we experience in life are best dealt with through acceptance, and acceptance alone. Simply applying proper perspective allows our happiness to remain essentially unaffected, even as we recognize the feelings that come from events that feel bad, even disappointing or tragic.
Rarely, the right move is to first accept it as current fact, and then change it – to transform what ‘shouldn’t have happened’ to something that ‘will never happen again’.