A word that argues with reality and brings people upset, frustration, and worry.
Although most of us believe Should is a sweet expression of preference, we actually use it to fiercely argue with reality and say that what “is” shouldn’t be. Byron Katie says that when we argue with reality, we always lose because reality is what it is. It’s not changing, and our lack of acceptance can only lead to disappointment.
When I teach a workshop and introduce the problematic nature of the word Should, I invariably get backlash from the audience. One person will want to push the word to its ultimate limit by bringing up the evils of violence. Living in Jerusalem, this usually comes up as terrorism. A few years ago, Jerusalem found itself in the middle of the “Stabbing Intifada,” during which terrorists stabbed civilians in the streets of our city. About a dozen stabbings over the course of the year inspired reverberations of fear into the hearts of many Israelis, including my students. During a workshop, the heat in the room led to this:
Sandy: But what about the stabbings that have been going on? You can’t just accept them as okay! People are getting hurt. It’s scary.
Chana: So you believe that people shouldn’t stab other people.
Sandy: Of course! You don’t actually think they should, do you?
Chana: Rather than share with you what I think, I suggest we go deeper into understanding the word should.
I walked up to the board and asked the group to define the word should.
This is what they said:
It would be better. There’s no other way.
It’s right. Obligation.
It would be ideal. I expect it.
It must be. It has to be.
Chana: Sandy, tell me, what do you see in reality? Do people stab other people sometimes?
Chana: So, basically, G-d or reality or the universe or whatever you want to call it has created a world in which people stab other people. And that creation is all wrong.
Sandy: Yes. It’s like a kink in the system.
Chana: So you know better.
Chana: If you were running the world, people wouldn’t be stabbing other people.
Sandy: For sure not.
Chana: The question is: do you rule the world?
Sandy: Of course not.
Chana: Then you are simply arguing with reality. And when you argue with reality, you will always lose the argument.
Chana: Because reality is going to do what it’s going to do. People die, earthquakes shake, and bad movies come out every summer. You can’t control it all.
Sandy: So when I think that people shouldn’t stab other people I’m just in a fight?
Chana: Yes! You are living in a city where stabbings are happening, but you’re trying to cover your eyes and pretend they’re not happening. How do you feel inside when you believe people shouldn’t stab other people?
Sandy: I get intensely mad. My fists clench. My teeth clench. I want to punch somebody.
Chana: So when you believe that thought, you become violent. You inhabit the violence you believe shouldn’t exist in the world.
Sandy: Oh… Yeah. I guess I do.
Chana: Perhaps, rather than trying to control other people and their knives, you could turn the thought around and see how it applies to you.
Sandy: So I shouldn’t stab other people? But I’ve never hurt anyone.
Chana: Have you ever said or done something to another person that felt like a “stab in the back?”
Sandy: Um…. Oh, yeah… I ditched a friend the other night to hang out with a guy I thought was cute. It was so not cool.
Chana: So you have where to grow in this area.
Sandy: Totally. I didn’t cut into her flesh, but I hurt her. I should apologize.
Chana: If you did, you’d feel more peaceful inside.
Sandy: Yeah. I feel pretty guilty about it.
Chana: Yes. Can you give more reasons why it’s true that you shouldn’t stab other people?
Sandy: I don’t literally stab other people.
Chana: That’s comforting for me to hear. Two more reasons?
Sandy: I don’t want to kill anyone?
Chana: And one more?
Sandy: Um…. I can’t think of anything….
Chana: Tell me, since you arrived in Jerusalem last month, how many people have been stabbed?
Sandy: I don’t know for sure. Maybe twelve.
Chana: That’s a pretty good guess. There have been three stabbings, actually. And tell me, how many stabbings have you replayed in your mind?
Sandy: Soooo many. Every time I walk in the Old City and see an Arab, I picture them pulling out a knife and am on the lookout. Or if I read about a stabbing in the news, I picture it over and over in my head. It freaks me out.
Chana: You don’t like feeling freaked out, I presume?
Sandy: Not at all.
Chana: So it might be a good idea to stop stabbing other people.
Sandy: But I’m not…?
Chana: In your head.
Sandy: Oh. I get it. Yeah. That would be nice.
Chana: You’re looking for people to stop stabbing other people so you can feel peaceful.
Chana: Perhaps skip the middleman. You can feel more peaceful by not stabbing others in the back or replaying those images in your head.
Sandy: I see that.
Chana: And by not arguing with reality. People stab other people. That’s the reality.
Sandy: But I don’t want them to.
Chana: I hear that. Can you control what the million people in this city do?
Chana: Who can you control?
Sandy: Just me.
Chana: So start with you. Don’t stab people. Not in your head and not in the physical world. Teach us about nonviolence and kindness through your example.
Sandy: I can try.
Chana: That’s what we’re all doing – trying.
One fascinating byproduct of Should statements is that they always lead us in the opposite direction from what we intended. Though Sandy believed the thought people shouldn’t stab other people would make the world more peaceful, it actually made her a more angry and violent person. This is also the case with all sorts of other Should statements, such as I should exercise, I should work harder, people should be polite. But don’t take my word for it, get a taste of this axiom for yourself. I’d like you to do an exercise I use with clients who struggle with obesity.
Close your eyes and imagine you are standing a few steps away from a long table. On top of that table are all of your most favorite treats and desserts. Allow yourself to get very detailed in your vision. What colors do you see? What do you smell? How do you react when you believe that you shouldn’t eat those desserts?
If you are like most people, visualizing the desserts on the table created a desire for them and believing that you shouldn’t eat the desserts pushed you towards scarfing down everything on display. It’s an ironic result of our attempts to take care of ourselves. It’s also why I believe dieting often doesn’t work: ineffective levels of guilt, shame, and anger are at play. Barry Neil Kaufman points out that we make ourselves unhappy because we’ve been conditioned to believe that unhappiness will motivate us to engage in beneficial behaviors. The problem is that unhappiness fuels our destructive actions in the first place. We’ll discuss this further in The Addiction Loopand Aggression Tailspin.
Sandy was fearful and angry in response to the terrorism that she experienced in her city. She came to realize her upset was due to her story about that reality:
That it was wrong, a “kink in the system,” and that it should be different. She suffered under the barrage of images she projected in her mind and the internal violence they created. Should-ing all over herself left her powerless to develop peace in herself and, ultimately, the world.
Summary of Should-ing Belongs in the Outhouse
Should-ing Belongs in the Outhouse because the word Should causes us so much internal strife (and possibly gas and bloating.) Pay attention to the places where you say or imply a Should and use Inquiry to accept reality on its own terms.
Like what you’ve read? You can learn Should-ing Belongs in the Outhouse along with 21 other tools in my book, Hold That Thought. Download a free copy of the book here.