Variations on The Word Should


I love words.

I suspect that you do as well and that’s one of the reasons that you’re here. I live for those rare gossamer moments when words flow out of me as if directed by some invisible conductor. My muse or tiny conductor or whatever she is doesn’t stop by that often but I keep writing anyway and, little by little, my writing improves and my words reach more people and, even in her absence, people tell me that those words make a difference to them. That’s another kind of magic.

As a bookish girl growing up round and introverted in the Ottawa Valley, I saw + felt that words had power. Words designed to put people in their place. Words that included some and excluded others. {So many words that excluded girls and women.} Words that tore people down. Fat. Lazy. Know-it-all.


As I grew older. I began my Sacred Odyssey to read ALL the books. Through conversations with kindred-spirit-nerd-girls and with supportive teachers and librarians, I encountered more words that elevated people. Words that inspired and ignited. Faithfully, I collected these words in spiral bound notebooks from K-Mart; at first I kept the words in lists and then I got brave and tried out various combinations in poems and short stories. As an undergraduate student of English Literature, I learned the intricate history of words and I began to understand the blue-green sea-bottom of this language I’d been given.


As a writer, educator and coach, there are some words that I’m choosing to use less. I’ve talked a bit here about “always” and “never”. My experience is that those words are short cuts designed for the sake of emphasis but that they rarely describe a situation fully. This is not about semantics for me… it’s about expressing the complicated truth of being human.

I can’t think of anything that I always do. I love to sleep until 7:00 a.m. {and I mean that’s a strong preference) but sometimes I get up at 5:00 a.m. ~ to travel, because I can’t sleep, or because I want to watch the sun rise. Sometimes I desire the rising sun more than the warmth of my bed. So these words, always and never, they feel too easy and not quite true. For me, the biggest problem with always and never is that they sometimes create unhelpful thoughts about myself or someone else. Always and never become limits. Boundaries. Occasionally they are declarations of war. (See: “I would NEVER do that to him!”)

Honestly, I prefer the soft shoulder of “I have not yet published a book but I’m working on it,” “I try to get to sleep by 11:00 p.m. as often as possible,” and “I’m committed to loving and respecting the people in my life.”


That’s the word that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

Every time I use the word should about myself or someone else, I sentence myself to a little bit of suffering. {Sometimes it’s a lot of suffering.} I’m starting to see most of that suffering as completely unnecessary.

Here are some shoulds I’ve had recently:
* “He should give up his seat on the train for that elderly woman.”
* “She shouldn’t be wearing that outfit that doesn’t flatter her body.”
* “That woman in Starbucks should not be speaking so loudly on her phone.” {Yup. True story… as I was writing this piece.}
Please be clear that I am a big fan of establishing good boundaries and teaching other people how to treat me but many of my shoulds are old ghosts from my childhood, from the time when I believed that there was a right way and a wrong way to do things.

This is the worst should of all: “I should have done it differently.”

Here’s the thing. I didn’t do it differently. I did it exactly the way I did it.

So rather than beating myself up… rather than focussing on the ways I should be better or more __________ (fill in in the blank) or PERFECT… I can choose to say, “Wow. That didn’t work out exactly the way I’d hoped. How can I do that differently next time?” I can choose to speak to myself in a kind and compassionate way. I can choose to speak to myself in the same way that I would normally speak with a friend or a student at school.

Come to think of it, should is kind of an asshole of a word.

I want my life to be easier than should.

As always, I want that for you too.

*This piece was originally shared in my newsletter, The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox twice a month, you can subscribe here.

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