It’s easy to get tripped up on the word and idea of ‘should.’ We sometimes hear people say, “I know I’m not supposed to say ‘should’ “ as if it’s bad or wrong. When we get tangled up with a ‘should,’ it’s usually because we’re having difficulty making some decision. “I don’t know if I should do this or not. I can’t decide.” To work our way through this decision-making process, it can be helpful to ask ourselves two fundamental questions.

“Do I want to do this?”

“Do I really want to accept the invitation to his event; to invite her to my event; to stay at my job; to go back to school; to get engaged; to break up; to cut the grass; to go to a movie?” 

Often we make the mistake of skipping over this question and moving right to the ‘should’ question. In order to answer the ‘want’ question we need to be in touch with our feelings. The ‘want’ question is asking, “What do I feel about this prospect?” “Do I feel excited, relieved, pleased or comfortable with the idea?” “Or do I feel dread, stressed, anxiety, coerced or irritated just to think about it?” 

Identifying what we feel and want, what is comfortable and uncomfortable, is what it means to be emotionally honest with ourselves. For some, this is much easier said than done. Some of us have been practicing avoiding what we feel or prefer our whole lives. Some feel that they don’t have permission to identify what they feel or want, or that it’s bad or wrong to do so.

“Is there a good, healthy reason why I should or shouldn’t do this?”

Let’s assume that there is a good and healthy version of ‘should,’ and a not so good and healthy version of ‘should.’ To distinguish one from the other, it’s important to slow down and appeal to our most objective, common-sense self. 

One pitfall here is that we may be tempted to focus on whether other people think we should or shouldn’t do a thing. Although it can be helpful to consider the opinions of others whom we trust, it’s important to be able to answer, “What do I think about the wisdom of this choice?” 

Good, healthy reasons to say yes or no to an option might be that it’s safer, smarter, physically or emotionally healthier, or morally or ethically the right way to go. Reasons that are not so good and healthy might be that other people are pressuring us, it’s what we’ve always done and are afraid to change, or we’re afraid to make a mistake and risk being embarrassed or judged.

What shall I do??

The third step is to make a choice. If the answers to the first two questions are consistent, then the choice is easier. If I want to go out to dinner and I can’t think of a good, healthy reason why I shouldn’t, then I might as well go. If I don’t want to go see the movie and I can’t think of a good, healthy reason why I should, then I might skip it. The hard part is when the answers to the ‘want’ and ‘should’ questions don’t match. “I don’t feel like apologizing, but I know it’s the right thing to do.” Or, “I want more ice cream, but I know it’s not good for me.” 

In this case of a ‘want-should’ mismatch, we are likely to feel some kind of discomfort regardless of which choice we make. If we go with the ‘want,’ we might have some guilt to process. If we go with the good and healthy ‘should,’ we might feel deprived or some resentment. In either case, we’ll be better off if we make this choice consciously and deliberately.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Walker Fenton on Unsplash 

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Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.