Why Saying “I Should” Saps Your Strength

Healthy food and exercise rejuvenate the body! Being productive helps you personally and helps society.

Okay, that’s nice. But how does this next sentence make you feel?

You should eat well, exercise, and be productive! *points finger*

Do you find it as suffocating as I do? The reason why is very core to being human.

The Phantom Authority

While it can be used in a harmless way (“You should come bowling with us!”) or a legal way (“You should pay your taxes”), the word “should” also has a very destructive use. It’s often used as a controlling weapon against us, and sometimes we use it against ourselves!

The problem comes down to authority and autonomy. A suggestive “should,” even for something positive like eating vegetables, feels bad because it covertly attempts to rob us of choice. If you wake up thinking, “I should ____ today,” you’ve created a Phantom Authority that has power over you. I understand that sounds dramatic, but just think about it…

If you believe you “should” practice violin, you’re saying that some ideal (e.g., practicing to get good at violin) is more important than your freedom to choose what to do with your time. Yikes. That’s a really powerful attack against your freedom and sense of autonomy (the idea that you are self-governing human being with choice), and that’s probably why we don’t always do so many of the things we “should” do. 

“Should” turns good ideas into destructive, threatening Overlords. It’s a great idea to eat well, work out, practice skills, read books, write books, and do the dishes. But the moment you feel like you “should” do any of those, they become symbols of your servitude. If you do something because you “should,” you aren’t powerfully creating positive change in your life, you’re weakly serving a Phantom Authority that you’ve created or accepted.

Frodo CHOSE to Take the Ring to Mordor

Think of your favorite movie where the good guys win (that’s most movies!). Have you thought about why it inspires you? 

My favorite movie series is The Lord of the Rings. There’s a specific point in the first film when the viewer tends to get chills and fall in love with Frodo. Do you know what it is?

In Rivendell, everyone has met to discuss what to do with the newfound Ring of Power. They conclude that it must be destroyed at Mount Doom in Mordor, but it’s basically a suicide mission to try to make it there. Everyone begins fighting about who “should” take the ring to Mordor to destroy it. The basis of their discussions are philosophical, geographical, racial, cultural, and historical. (These are a lot of the same things that influence our “shoulds.”)

Then, in the midst of literal should-driven chaos, a voice calls out, “I will take it.”


I get the feels every time.

Frodo completely slices through all of the “shoulds” with a human’s greatest power—choice! He flat-out chooses to take the ring to Mordor. That’s why he is a hero. And look at how the other characters react to him. They feel some fear for Frodo, but more than that, they instantly admire and respect him.

What if Gandalf instead forced Frodo to take the ring to Mordor? That’s not inspiring at all! That’s child slave labor! The whole movie would be a tragedy. Every struggle Frodo had along the way would be terrible, criminal, and indicting of Gandalf.

How to Navigate Dangerous “Should” Waters

The whole world is throwing “shoulds” at us constantly. Every advertisement attempts to tell you what you should or shouldn’t buy. Most self-help books you read tell you what you should do to live a better life.

External influences and our ideas of how to better ourselves can create a shouldstorm of ideas. You might wake up being assaulted by ideas of what you should and shouldn’t do right now, in the next hour, in the course of the day, and for your life. Some of the most tragic lives in history were those controlled by the all the “shoulds” in their head. They made too few choices of their own.

So here’s how to combat all of that.

“I choose.” (Or “I am choosing to ____.”)

  • I choose to take the ring to Mordor. (But Frodo has dibs… it’s like calling “shotgun.”)
  • I choose to work out today.
  • I choose to skip my workout today.
  • I choose to vacuum my cat (God bless the internet. Seriously.).

Imagine your mind as the chaotic discussion seen in that film clip, and your choice being the voice of Frodo. That’s kind of how it works in my experience. We can’t really avoid thoughts of what we should and shouldn’t do, but we can choose to make firm choices outside of their council. Sometimes, our actions will align with the “shoulds,” but motive matters here.

I think that we become far more powerful when we refuse to be controlled by thoughts of should and shouldn’t. Our peak strength is found in our autonomy and choice, so if you’re able to disassociate your behavior from this controlling word, you might just gain a new sense of personal power. 

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