The Power of Should

Credit: Christopher Palmer

“Should” is a word that comes up a lot in the health world.  We’re told that there are things we should do to be healthy, like exercise, eat well, get lots of sleep, and manage stress.  Then, there’s all the shouldn’ts like smoking, alcohol, sugar, etc.

We’re told that we must harness our willpower in order to follow these guidelines, and yet, as you’ve probably noticed, willpower eventually runs dry.

Why is that? Why don’t we just do what we think we should?  The answer to this is complex, but I think that it lies partly in the power of “should.” Should does not feel good. Should is not the same as “because I want to.” Should and shouldn’t are words that inspire guilt. Yet we don’t reject them, because we believe that if we feel guilty enough we’ll be motivated to correct our actions.

Sometimes we are motivated by guilt, but the motivation is temporary, and when it wears off and we go back to our old ways, we end up feeling worse than ever.

When people first find out that I’m a health coach, they often launch into a story about how “bad” they are and how they wish they could motivate themselves to do certain things they believe are healthy.  I usually surprise them by suggesting that unless they actually want to do those things, they’d probably be best off just letting themselves off the hook.

Of course, I know that I am only planting a seed of thought when I share my perspective.  Likely, the person I am talking to is thinking, “Ok, but then how will I become more healthy if I let myself off the hook?”  My answer is this: Authentic pursuit of health requires getting to know yourself better through gentle experimentation.

What does that mean?  What does it look like?  Everyone’s path is different, but I’ll give you an example.  Say you want to exercise more, but you just can’t seem to make it happen.  You could start by asking yourself, “What kind of movement do I enjoy?”  Maybe you remember that you used to love tap dancing, so you find a local tap class and sign up.  Then you check in with yourself to see if it’s working for you.  If so, you continue on, if not, you quit (guilt free!) and think of something else to try.

Remember: The point is not to figure out what works for you immediately and stick with it forever.  If something doesn’t go according to your expectations (like if you don’t like the tap class instructor or the class is at a bad time for you) don’t throw your hands up and call the experiment a failure! Every time things don’t go the way you planned is an opportunity to learn something about yourself, and to use this knowledge to make better decisions in the future.

Pomegranate heart

You can leave your tap class or failed diet or last attempt at quitting smoking and say to yourself, “I suck.  I can’t do this.” OR you can say, “That didn’t work out.  I’ll try to figure out why and think about what I want to try next.” If you are harsh with yourself, you will rob yourself of any motivation to try again and try differently. If you treat yourself gently, and with compassion, whatever happened is just part of your journey, and you are free to keep growing.  Remember: you deserve the same kindness you would bestow on any of your loved ones.  Take a break from “should.”


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2 thoughts on “The Power of Should”

  1. Thank you for this. It’s really challenging for me to make the shift from trying to guilt myself into everything, to doing things more because I want to. Sometimes it’s even hard to tell the difference. Like, I mostly feel like I like to do Zumba, but when class time comes, I just don’t want to go. Usually because I’m tired and just want to hit the couch and watch TV after a long day at work. But then when I go I enjoy it while I’m there and I feel great afterwards. So how to I get myself to go to class without a little “shoulding”?

    • Hi Anna! That’s a great question. There are different ways to deal with this. If we were in a coaching session together I might ask about different ways you’ve worked with this issue and if you have any ideas about how you might try to work with it. Experimentation is key!
      Here’s one thing you might try: When it’s getting close to time to leave for your class, and you are feeling resistance, stop whatever you are doing and find a peaceful place to sit. Sit, put away distractions, take a few deep breaths, and let thoughts drift away for a moment. When you are feeling a bit calmer and settled, tune in to yourself. How are you feeling in your body, heart, and mind? Let that settle in. Then, think about your class. Why do you want to go? Why do you not want to go? What will likely happen if you go or don’t go? You may have found your answer already by this point, but if not, look for your gut feeling. Do you really want to go or not go? Commit to your gut feeling, and release any guilt that arises, secure in the knowledge that you are taking the best possible care of yourself in this moment.
      Another thing is to address the fears that come up. One that comes up for me, is that I fear if I miss one yoga class, it will become easier to skip future yoga classes. It’s not a baseless fear, because it’s true on some level, but only when guilt is my motivation for class. If I dismiss guilt one day, it’s easier to dismiss guilt another day. But if I am going to yoga because I like to and it makes me feel good, I can rest assured that I’ll go when it’s good for me, and not when it’s not, and I can safely ditch the guilt either way.
      I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions.


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