I have a confession to make that I’m not very proud of, I was a “serial shoulder.” That’s right, for most of my life I consistently, annoyingly, destructively “should on” people, lot’s of people – my wife, kids, friends, family – people I care for and love very much. And every time I “should on” someone I unknowingly created resistance, resentment and sometimes downright anger towards myself. Nice. Was that my intention? Of course not. In fact, almost all of my “shoulds” came with the best of intentions. That’s the thing about “shoulds”, they usually do come with the best of intentions. The problem is, that’s not how they are received by most people. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Most people, including myself, hate it when we are “should on” by another person. It usually creates a visceral reaction with a very predictable response (imagine a giant middle finger pointing your direction). And the funny thing is, often times people do the exact opposite of what they are told they “should” do, even to their own detriment. That’s how much most of us hate being “should on”.
“You think I should stop dating him? Well, I just decided to move in with him even though I can’t stand him”. “You think I should start eating healthier foods? Please pass me the chips and a coke and a big ole slice of chocolate cake as quickly as you can.” “You think I should stop drinking? Well, get me a gin and tonic please.”
So why does being “should on” have such an effect? Because it triggers us, or more specifically, it triggers a fear in us that pretty much always results in upset……that I’m not good enough….to figure this out on my own. “You should” is a form of unsolicited advice and that advice is almost always around something that will make your life better…..if only you were smart enough to see it.
Most people do not like receiving unsolicited advice no matter how insightful or valuable it might be because quite frankly, feeling less than enough isn’t very fun. It pisses us off.
And if we consistently experience being “should on” by a friend, or a parent or a boss, chances are the upset created by that being the case will, over time, damage or simply end the relationship.
But there’s another reason being “should on” causes upset between two people. Underneath almost every “should” is a subtle, or sometimes not so subtle belief on behalf of the “shoulder”. The belief is – I have “The Truth” for you. The problem is, I couldn’t possibly have “The Truth” for anyone. Sure, I have my opinions of what might be best for someone, but I don’t have “The Truth”, how could I? It may seem like I have “The Truth” but is that really the case? There’s a certain degree of self-righteousness inherent in that belief that is off-putting. I know, because that was me for most of my life.
Are you a “shoulder”? Are you unintentionally creating upset inside of your relationships by “shoulding on” your kids, or your spouse or your friends and co-workers? Would you be willing to let go of the belief that you have “The Truth” for another human being?
The good news is “shoulding” on people is just a habit, one that you can change whenever you want. That said, it is not easy to do, at least in my experience. It has taken me a lot of effort and focus to break myself of the habit of “shoulding” on people. The thing is, now that I have greatly curtailed “shoulding on” people (I still do it on a rare occasion, usually with the same predictable outcome), it’s crazy how much less upset and resistance I encounter in my conversations, especially with those that I love.
I really get that I don’t have “The Truth” for anyone, that is theirs and theirs alone to discover.
That’s not to say that I don’t weigh in with my kids, or my friends or my clients, I just do it in a way that doesn’t create the same reaction.
In my mind, our entire life is created through our language. What we say matters a lot, a whole lot. The result of any conversation I will ever have is determined in large part by what words I choose to say inside that conversation. I can alter the outcome of almost any conversation by choosing different words. One of the best examples is choosing out of “shoulding” on someone and using different words to convey your belief. “It might be worth considering, have you thought of it this way, have you looked at it from this angle”, these are all ways of providing advice without actually providing advice. By phrasing it this way you put the power of awareness and choice back where it belongs, with the person who you’re involved within this moment. Would you be willing to kick the habit of “shoulding on” people in your life? I’m not saying you should, just that it might be worth considering.