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Why Do We “Should” Each Other?

Have you ever sat around the family dinner table (I know that is a rarity anymore for many families) and listen to the conversation?

Inevitably, there is that one family member who interjects a “should” into the conversation.

Sometimes it sounds like, “If you hate your job, you should quit”. Other forms of “Shoulding” may sound like. “You should make more money.” Or it may be unasked for parenting advice… which sounds like “You should change preschools” or “you should discipline your child differently.”

Shoulding can come with even more blatant criticism as in “You should have been more careful.”

Shoulding can also be heard in its opposite form as well. You should not… take that job, date that person, wear that outfit…

I have observed that with some people, there is no shortage of shoulding.

Does this describe your family at all? Does this describe you? Are you a chronic should-er?

Why do we do it? What is the fallout to the relationship when one or more people are “shoulding” all over each other?

In some families, shoulding is a common practice and no one seems to mind it. In fact if you ask family members they will often report that they either don’t notice it, or they just accept “that’s the way dad is” and they let it roll off their back.

However, in other families, shoulding ignites a lot of tension, distress, disconnection and even arguments.

When the practice or habit of shoulding creates tension, distance and discord in a marriage, or a family situation, or is occurring frequently in the workplace, that is when it becomes problematic.

So why do some people should all over the place?

1. Learned Behavior- Many people grew up in households where there were more than one should-er. It may be they were inundated with should and should not messages from not only controlling parents, but older siblings, teachers, coaches and other relatives.

2. We Like Control- Some people get a satisfaction and even self esteem boost by telling others what to do, and when or if the person actually does the thing the should-er said, can cause them to feel superior, or at least more important than they otherwise would.

3. Blind Habit- Many people lack awareness of what flies out of their mouth. They may have developed this habit of shoulding and no one has ever said, “hey, I don’t like when you do this” and so they go on shoulding with little to no consequence or awareness of the effect of their behavior on others.

4. Narcissist behavior- This is controlling behavior on steroids. Narcissists love to tell others what to do, when and how, as it feeds their weak ego/ insecurities.

Additionally, if I spend all day telling others what they “should do” then I don’t really have time to look at myself and my own behavior which is just fine for a narcissist that is still immersed in blaming and shaming and not getting help for themselves.

If you are ready to admit that this is a habit for you that is not helping to enhance your relationships, but rather is a detriment to them, help is available. In the short run, you might try the following:

1. Enquire if you are a should-er. Ask people closest to you… spouse, partner, coworkers, friends, do I should you a lot? Then be ready to listen and not defend when they speak their truth.

2. Tap into your real feelings before carelessly tossing out comments. Ask yourself, what is going on for me right now that is causing me to want to tell this person what they should do?

3. Find out what your reward is from this habit. In other words, shoulding people can become like an addiction whereby your brain gets a hit of dopamine. Maybe you have told yourself you like being right, or in control… we only repeat behaviors that provide reward, even when the reward is short term and the long term consequences can be detrimental.

4. Ask yourself what kind of relationships you desire? Do you want more adult to adult interactions? If so, then begin to realize the habit of shoulding keeps you in a “one up position” and therefore reduces the other person to childlike status when you tell them what to do. Others’ self esteem can really take a hit from this repetitive behavior.

5. Start Practicing asking questions – this will help you slow down and not toss out should comments, as asking questions is a way to engage with people rather than talk at them.

Most people do not enjoy being around someone who is constantly shoulding them. Because of the imbalance of power in the relationship, i.e., one person subliminally purporting to have more knowledge, wisdom and power, it often does not feel good to be on the other end of this person’s behavior. This is true at home and in the workplace.

Many a marriage struggles with this dynamic as do parent / adult child relationships.

If you want to have a healthier relationship, one filled with more meaningful interactions, you will need to replace your shoulding behavior with asking questions and engaging with the people you care about.

Start with yourself first and practice connecting and engaging with people rather than shoulding them. You will likely discover a new dynamic to your relationships that feels good and a whole lot less stressful as you enjoy a new way to connect and relate with people at home and in your workplace.


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