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Mind Your Language!

You must read this and you should do it now!

Wow…sounds like I got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning!!!

Don’t worry, I’m just sharing an example.

We all use ‘should’ and ‘must’ with ourselves every day or even every hour. Just look at your ‘To Do’ list and your vocabulary suddenly becomes filled with “I must do that”, “I have to do this” and “I should do that”.

But how often do you use these words when you are talking to others? I’m guessing it will be a lot less.


Because ‘should’ and ‘must’ sound very bossy.

You are more likely to use ‘could’ or ‘can’ when talking to others. So why don’t we use these with ourselves? Think about the difference between:

• “I should lose 6lbs” and “I could lose 6lbs”

• “I should be more organised” and “I could be more organised”

Try another example with something you have told yourself you should do.

And try swapping must for might - “I must phone the tax office today” or “I might phone the tax office today”.

‘Could’ and ‘might’ feel much nicer don’t they. They give you a sense of choice, empowerment and a potential for change and invoke feelings of hope and possibility.

Whereas ‘should’ and ‘must’ sound like commands and often evoke feelings of judgement and guilt.

I recently needed to note down all the things I wanted to do, but ‘To Do’ lists fill my mind and vocabulary with ‘should’ and ‘must’ which, in turn, can create feelings of stress. I had lots of ideas and knew it would become a very long list that would take weeks, possibly even months to complete.

As I like to work through lists quickly I realised there was a strong possibility I could start chastising myself for not completing the list quickly enough and I might start feeling overwhelmed by it.

I didn’t want my excitement and enthusiasm to be replaced with negative emotions and thoughts of “I should have done this, I must do that”.

So I created a mind map of my ideas and tasks instead. The middle of the mind map simply says “Things I could do”.

It’s a small change that has made a huge difference. Every time I look at it I feel enthused about the tasks on there, I don’t feel anxious that it’s taking me a long time to cross the tasks off and I have a sense of choice about which task I can pick to work on.

I know this won’t fit every scenario but try it out when you get a chance and see if it makes a difference for you.

Using ‘should’ and ‘must’ can often be inappropriate and damaging, not only when we are thinking about our ‘to do’ lists but when we are forming ideas and beliefs about the world.

For example, “Everyone should be pleasant to me, if I am pleasant with them”.

This is your belief. Unfortunately not everyone will share your beliefs or values.

By using ‘should’ in this way you are more likely to feel angry, hurt or frustrated when people’s behaviour doesn’t match your own beliefs or values.

Changing this example to “Everyone could be pleasant to me, if I am pleasant to them” means you won’t be disappointed or surprised if it doesn’t happen.

So next time you go to use the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ check that they are appropriate and if not, use ‘could’ and ‘might’ instead and speak to yourself the way you would speak to others.

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