“Should” considered harmful

My cliff notes from “Should” considered harmful:

We enter this phase of the series with a pointed guilt about not doing something in particular, having dispensed with listless guilt.

Now, the pattern is simple: You think there’s something you should be doing, you aren’t doing it, and you feel guilty about that.

I claim that the word “should” is causing damage here.

In fact, as far as I can tell, the way that most people use the word “should,” most of the time, is harmful. People seem to use it to put themselves in direct and unnecessary conflict with themselves.

“Should” set you up for self-judgement as incompetent, akratic, or bad if you don’t do what you “should”. This is divorced from why you “should” in the first place, substituting that baseline “why” that first motivated the “should” for an obligation with ugly, meaningfully consequences.

The solution is to keep the reason attached to the task, by stating the why and considering consequences for doing or not doing the thing as tradeoffs. This allows you to make a rational choice to not do or be something, accepting the consequences as a reasonable tradeoff instead of disobeying a “should” and incurring a value judgement against yourself.

Should motivations set you up for a lose-lose: even if do what you “should” and avoid the bad self-judgement, you’ve potentially suffered through something painful to do so. Considering the tradeoffs instead allows you to choose one set of tradeoffs for another on the basis of optimizing to minimize suffering.

Nate’s example is someone who’s sick and “should” go to the pharmacy for meds. If you “should” do it, and you do it, then you may’ve suffered through painfully social awkwardness to get there, plus you had to get dressed, leave the comfort of home, and apply your limited energies to driving or navigating transit, all while feeling miserable.

It may have been a preferable set of consequences to feel the pain of not having the medicine from the comfort of bed, and avoided all of that other kind of suffering. This recognizes the decision isn’t between “suffer or be bad”.

But the actual options aren’t “suffer” or “be bad.” The actual options are “incur the social/time costs of buying meds” or “incur the physical/mental costs of feeling ill.” It’s just a choice: you weigh the branches, and then you pick. Neither branch makes you “bad.” It’s ok to decide that the social/time costs outweigh the physical/mental costs. It’s ok to decide the opposite. Neither side is a “should.” Both sides are an option.

When breaking a “should” down into options with tradeoffs, be careful to avoid confusing others’ preferences for you with your own. Another difficulty to avoid is fear of even considering failure, which can drive you to irrationality. A third difficulty to avoid is trading one negative-infinity (I do this or I’m bad, period, end of story) for another, for example by substituting “I should” with “I need to”.

To avoid each of these, seriously break down the tradeoffs. Don’t be afraid to do so. Alternative options might truly be bad, but define and evaluate them concretely, then make your choice about what to do — instead of rounding up to “I do this, or I’m bad”.

When you should yourself without looking at the alternatives, you run a high risk of making yourself feel obligated and resentful. When you lay out all the options you can think of and choose the best, then it’s much easier to work with yourself rather than against yourself — sometimes you have to settle for the best of a bad lot, but this is much easier once you’ve actually looked at the whole lot.

If this is hard, focus on becoming mindful of when you are guilt-motivated. Keep track of how many times a day you “should” do something. When that becomes a habit, start trying to break down those moments of “should”, into options with tradeoffs, and then celebrate building that habit.

If this seems like a lot of work, or an exercise that seems likely to lead to the same outcome of motivating one choice or another, recall that the whole reason we are doing this is to move toward guilt-free lives, by removing guilt as a motivation. We aren’t there yet, but this is a step in the way.

It’s not necessarily easy, either: Once you’ve “cashed out” shoulds into tradeoffs, your interests amy conflict, you may be left with a hard choice, and you may still find yourself doing the worse thing. So this isn’t a fix-all, but it is a strategy.

I’ve found it very helpful to treat almost all shoulds as a toxic attempt to blind me to the alternatives. Be careful: the thoughts you can’t think do you harm, and the options you can’t weigh cost you dearly.

So cash out your shoulds, and weigh all your options on the scales — and then choose what is best, free of obligation.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.