Reality Check: “Should” versus “Could”

One little word sometimes makes a world of difference, doesn’t it? Some are obvious contrasts: “I love you” versus “I hate you;” or “I don’t care” versus “I do care.”

However, other small changes are not so obvious, yet have big effects. Such is the case with “could” and “should.”

Marty is feeling a lot of pressure. Just last month, his girlfriend had a beautiful baby boy, and Marty is ecstatic about being a dad.

However, it seems that other, less pleasant emotions overwhelm all the joy. There’s uncertainty— “What should I do?” disgust—“I should be able to provide a better future for my family,” and self-loathing—“I should be more like other people who have everything under control.”

Until the little fella came along, Marty hadn’t put much thought into the future, or into the present, for that matter. Now, however, all Marty sees are his failures. All those shoulds: “I should have a better job,” “I should make more money,” “I should be able to provide everything that other people do,” express Marty’s new theme of self-criticism.

Criticism is one of what Dr. Glasser refers to as the seven deadly habits, considered deadly because they destroy relationships. If you’ve ever observed a relationship where people interact with criticism, you’ll understand why it’s called deadly.

Self-criticism is deadly too, isn’t it? When you tell yourself, “I should… I should… I should” it brings a negative, judgmental feeling along with it.

Perhaps you think that we have to criticize ourselves or we’ll never improve. Let’s examine that. Is it really true?

When you criticize yourself, telling yourself over and over that you “should” do this or that you should feel guilty—does that make things better? Does it get you closer to what you want and need? Does it inspire you? Or does it leave you feeling kind of down, dull, and not quite motivated to get started?

What might be more effective? Try substituting “could” for “should” in those guilt-inducing phrases, and then follow them up with a plan of action.

Instead of, “I should have a better job,” try “I could have a better job if I take this first step toward getting one.” Instead of, “I should provide a better future for my family,” try “I could provide a better future for my family by making a change in what I’m doing.”

Do those phrases sound different? Do they bring out a different emotion?

The word “could” emphasizes choice and possibility. Those possibilities can only become reality, of course, if you follow them up with action.

Self-criticizing (should-ing) is not the same as self-evaluating. Self-evaluation is essential; that’s when you examine your actions, learn from the results, and then make any necessary changes so you’ll be more effective. Evaluating yourself, however, does not necessarily mean criticizing yourself!

“Could” highlights that taking action is your choice. “Should” implies that an action is forced on you, (even if it’s you doing the forcing). Which action are you more likely to follow through?

Do you think that substituting “could” for “should” can help you act more effectively?

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