Shoulds, Woulds, and If Onlys

How much time do you spend thinking about what you should do, or what you would do if something was different, or what you could be if only that one thing in life changed? What role do these words play in your day to day life?

What’s the harm?

1.     These phrases are invalidating.

Underlying the shoulds, woulds, and if onlys are messages that you are not good enough or your current experience is not valid or “right”. 

“I should feel happier” translates to “It is not okay for me/I do not deserve to feel sadness, pain, anger, etc.”

“If I was in a relationship, I would be okay” translates to “I am not okay as an individual”, or “Another person must be responsible for my own sense of well-being”.

“I would if I…”? Underlying this is a message that you, as the person you are at this moment, are not capable of moving through challenges or bumps in the road.

2.     These phrases make you a passive participant and lead to inaction.

“I should be more successful.” According to who? And what would this actually mean or look like? “Should” moves our locus of control (the degree to which we believe we have control over the events in our life) from internal to external. We are no longer the owner of our actions or our responses to outside events. When we do not follow through or meet these obscure “shoulds”, we often experience shame or guilt, which make us less likely to take action.

“If only my childhood had been different.” While you may not have control over the events that occur in your life, you do have control over your own response and process following these events. “If only” often eliminates the possibility of choice or change, as though our destinies have already been carved in stone.

3.     These phrases distance you from your own needs and wants.

“I shouldn’t feel this bad” prevents you from identifying the purpose of your current emotion. As uncomfortable as some emotions may be, there is a purpose in each of them; denying or minimizing their presence is ultimately a disservice. These phrases also create the assumption that there is a correct way or a correct length of time to experience a feeling.

How do we change it?

1.     Practice acceptance

Accepting the place that you are in at the present moment does not prevent you from setting goals or working towards growth and change. You can accept pain, hurt, and disappointment while also working towards being in a place of happiness and fulfillment.

“I accept that I am feeling _____ at this moment; I also know that this feeling will not last forever.”

2.     Put yourself back in the driver’s seat

Try an experiment. Replace “should” with “I am choosing…” or “I want…” or “I am prioritizing…”. Suddenly, you are the owner of your choices, feelings, and thoughts.

“I should feel happier” is much different than “I want to be happier”. “I should go the gym” is a lot different than “I am prioritizing (or not prioritizing) going to the gym.”

3.     Get curious

When you observe these phrases creeping into your language, take a moment to pause and do a bit of exploring. Is this something that you want, or something that you are being told to want? What would a promotion, or a relationship, or a particular feeling mean to you? What need would it be filling, and how might you meet this need?

To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.