Should vs. Want

One of the things I’m guilty of is my tendency to criticism myself. More often than I’d like, when something goes wrong, I will mentally scold and blame myself, regardless of whether I was the actual reason. I want to change my internal narrative to become more positive, and recently I looked into a few styles of positive thinking.


I use critical words such as “should”, “must”, or “ought” frequently. However, in Psychology, this is considered an unhealthy method of thinking. These words act as obligations and can make me feel guilty.

“I should go to the gym today.”


“Because I go to the gym at least three times a week.”

What happens if I don’t go to the gym?

“I failed, because I have a quota and I didn’t hit it.”

What happens if I go to the gym?

“I was supposed to. It was a given.”

When I burden myself with the expectation of “should”, I associated failure with not going to the gym but no success when I actually do go. I can go to the gym 10 times, and not feel accomplished because that’s what I decided I ‘should’ do, but even just missing 1 workout will trigger a feeling of guilt.

I should go to my friend’s birthday. I should buy so and so a congratulatory gift.  I must run at least three times a week. I must not eat bad foods. I should drink less alcohol.

The list goes on and on. Even though I manage to do a portion of my ‘shoulds’, there are always some that I don’t end up doing – which makes me feel like a failure. With the concept of ‘should’ I overlook all the things I did end up doing because I consider them givens. There are only negative reinforcements with shoulds, and no positive reinforcement.

Not only do I use these words on myself, I also use them on other people. In the same line of thinking, when I place expectations on other people, it can make me overly critical or frustrated when others do not do things that I think they “should”.

“My friend should not be late to dinner.”


“Because I would not be late, and therefore if they are, it means they are disrespectful of my time.”

What happens if my friend is late?

“He failed, because he should’ve been on time.”

What happens if my friend is on time?

“That’s what he was supposed to do.”

With this line of thinking, I only give my friend room to fail. There is no joy or accomplishment when he does show up on time, but there is a lot of criticism and blame when he is late.

In order to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, the suggested alternative in psychology is to replace “should” with the word “want”.

“I want to go to the gym today.”


“I enjoy going to the gym, and I like working out.”

What happens if I don’t go to the gym?

“I guess I didn’t want to go that much.” or “That’s a let down and too bad.”

What happens if I go to the gym?

“Good. I got to do something I want to do.”

In the case of  my tardy friend:

“I want my friend to show up on time to dinner.”


“Because I think it’s polite for people to be on time.”

What happens if they show up late?

“That would disappoint me.”

What happens if they show up on time?

“I’m glad they showed up on time like I wanted.”

When should is replaced with want, even when the want doesn’t happen, there’s no criticizing thoughts or blame placed. Yes, in some cases I will be disappointed or sad, but the sadness is isolated to the event, and not placed upon myself or my friend. Sadness is a perfectly healthy and acceptable feeling to bear, but guilt, blame, and criticism are damaging to both myself and my relationships. More importantly, when the want does happen, the result is I’m happy. This didn’t happen with my previous line of thinking.

Even though this seems pretty obvious. When I realized just how many ‘shoulds’ I subject myself and my loved ones to each day, it really becomes overwhelming. Of course there are legitimate shoulds in life such as: I should not steal things, we must not kill others, she should not evade taxes, he should not ingest fentanyl, you should not eat things you’re allergic to. But the majority of my ‘shoulds’ in life – like those that pertain to diet, exercise and social obligations aren’t really shoulds at all. These shoulds are just arbitrary rules I have placed upon myself and others like a cage. These shoulds, in reality, are really just my wants, and I do not want to be enslaved by them any longer.




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