Should we avoid ‘shoulds’?

The Shrink

The word “should” is a fraught one in the psychotherapy world. It’s likely to ring alarm bells if uttered in the consulting room and to prompt inquiries about the genealogy of the “should” in question. Where did you get this idea that you should be earning more? Be married with children by now? Be able to give public speeches without feeling nervous or have a perfect life?

This is a useful exercise. It’s important to investigate the pressures that might rule our life if left unexamined and understand the history of these “shoulds” as much as we can. An obvious place to look when tracking down values we may have absorbed uncritically is our family but the school we went to, our peer group and society at large also play a considerable role.

Thus begins the delicate work of disentangling the demands that were imposed on us from the outside and those that come from within our own value system – those we’ve swallowed whole and those we’ve digested, so to speak. There is a big difference between feeling you should match your father’s achievements simply because that is what he expected – and feeling you should be making an effort to steer your career in a more satisfying direction or be a more caring partner because these are truly meaningful goals.

But I wouldn’t banish the word “should” altogether. Simply using it doesn’t automatically mean you are adopting an inauthentic goal. First of all it can be salvaged as an instrumental “should”: if you want to have children, then you should do something about it while you’re in the appropriate age bracket. If you want to avoid feeling grotty in the morning, then you should avoid getting drunk the night before. And so on. “Should” can also sometimes alert you to a strong desire to connect with some aspect of your value system.

Be wary about your “shoulds”. But if, after asking yourself a few questions, you decide they’re right for you, just make sure you don’t treat them as inflexible demands.

The Sage

“Should” has become a kind of dirty word. Say it and you often get the retort, “Says who?” It’s a good question and the problem of answering it can be seen by considering two different kinds of “should”, as distinguished by Immanuel Kant.

The first variety is hypothetical imperatives, which are conditional upon some goal or objective. So, for example, if you want to lose weight, then you should eat less cake and if you want that promotion, you should apply for it. There is nothing preachy about such “shoulds”. They simply draw out what is practically necessary if you want to achieve something – but it is down to you what goals you set and whether you can be bothered to strive for them.

The second kind of “shoulds” is categorical imperatives which hold whatever you want. In normal circumstances, you should not lie, steal, cheat or murder, full stop. There is no “if” clause here. Adding “if you want to be good” won’t do because you should be good, whether you want to be or not.

But where do these categorical imperatives come from? Pure reason, thought Kant, but few have found his arguments persuasive. God, think many others, but “because I say so” is no justification, even if the person saying so is the Creator. God commands what is good because it is good; the good is not good because God demands it.

So it seems “shoulds” become either unjustified moralistic commands or mere reflections of personal preferences. But perhaps some hypothetical imperatives have such an important rationale that they can be almost as powerful as categorical ones. What if the purpose of morality is that we flourish, individually and collectively? So, if you want yourself and others to live well, you should not lie, steal or cheat, and you should admonish others who do. Here the “if” clause is so patently desirable there is little to argue with. You could reject such imperatives but, if you have any interest in a good and full life, you should at least think twice before doing so.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email

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