The Temptation of Improper Shoulding

Your ‘shoulds’ are not a duty and its precursor posts do a really nice job of articulating some problems with the way a lot of people use the word “should.”  Roughly speaking: the word isn’t inherently flawed, but it’s a privilege you have to earn through understanding of your goals in a situation and the strategy space surrounding them. Often when a person says what they “should” do, it’s trying to shortcut that process – to define as correct the action they’d take if they knew more, had thought through the tradeoffs, or had better skills/capacity.

This seems like a pretty clear mistake; so why does everyone make it? Why is it such a sticky and repeated temptation?

There’s another class of “mistake” this reminds me of, in the vicinity of picas like eating chocolate cake when you’re actually sad. The cake doesn’t solve any of your problems, and it doesn’t really even make you feel less sad. But I, at least, tend to want the chocolate cake anyway, even when I have these facts in my awareness. The chocolate cake does do something to the emotional pain.  It’s too sharp or too intense or otherwise too much, and the cake blunts it, numbs it, transmutes it into something that is somehow in that moment more bearable.

Seeing with clear eyes into the heart of what’s important to me, what it’ll take to get there, and the possibility of failure has a kind of intensity to it like looking into the sun. It’s powerful, and hard to look at without being prepared. Maybe I’m not strong enough to do it all the time.

And that’s where (improper) shoulds come in. Like the chocolate cake, they’re blunting the intensity of my experience, wrapping gauze around the necessity of difficult actions and the possibility that I may not be able to get everything I want.

“I should enjoy talking to people at parties,” I might say.  That lets my mind hide away from the fact that I don’t yet have the skill to do so, and the fact that until I do, there’s certain valuable things I won’t be able to get. If I “should,” then I don’t have to give up on getting those values today, this week, or this year. Somehow, the guilt of the should is less painful than the spiky moment of admitting that I’m not, in fact, going to enjoy the party and going home.

Or imagine a different world in which it really is best to stay at the party even though I’m not enjoying it.  The short-cutting “should” numbs the fact that I’m in an unpleasant situation and choosing to do nothing about it. If I tell myself I “have to” be here, I can cast blame outside myself, instead of having to dissolve the concept.

This outsourcing via “should” is like a corruption of Oliva Fox Cabane’s responsibility transfer, and may be useful for some of the same reasons. Or at least useful-seeming; I’m agnostic as yet about whether this sort of mental pattern is actually the best course in any situations.

So it seems to me that the proper use of “should” requires not only a conscious understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing, but also something like pain tolerance.  Psychological colorfastness, perhaps? The fortitude to persistently own your values and your choices even when the path to get there is crappy, and involves making tradeoffs against other things that you did really want.

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