“I Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda?” or How to Feel Shame, Regret and Self-Blame
How often have you heard yourself say those exact words? I have used one or all of those words during my life. Being a psychotherapist does not prevent me from making mistakes, just like all of us.
These words have roots in feelings of depression, anxiety, and chronic self-doubt. People suffering from these chronic conditions often wish they had made different or better life decisions. Accompanying these conditions is a tendency to be obsessional. Another way of saying obsessional is overthinking things.
During my forty years of psychotherapy, many clients habitually used the word “should” when discussing themselves. Some clients have said, “I should” do this or that or another thing.”
Another variation is “I should have.”When exploring that vocabulary word choice, clients explained they believed I, the therapist, wanted them to do the activity they “should have” done. Further exploration often revealed a history of parental expectation of the demand that they “should” clean their room, do their homework, or call grandma. If they failed to do these things, the parent was disappointed with them. Even worse was the outcome of parental anger.
We hear it, think about it, and say it to others. The word “should” falls under the category of a curse word. That word can be problematic because it often carries a sense of obligation or expectation, creating feelings of pressure, guilt, or shame.
The word “should” is often judgmental. While “should” is a bad word regarding our actions, it’s equally dangerous when directed at others. When we tell others what they should do, we judge them. Like others have no business telling us what to do, the opposite is also true.
The word “should” can be used in a way that lacks empathy or understanding. For example, it can be dismissive and invalidating if someone says, “You should just get over it,” to someone struggling with a tough experience or emotion.
The word “should” can be problematic when used in a judgmental, authoritarian way or lacking empathy. It is important to be mindful of how we use language and to communicate in a way that is respectful and compassionate toward others.
Following are some examples of the use of the word “should.”
- “You should eat a healthy breakfast every morning.”
- He should apologize for what he said to her.
- We should study harder if we want to get better grades.
- They should wear helmets when riding their bikes.
- The government should invest more in renewable energy.
- I should call my parents more often.
- She should take a break and relax for a while.
- It should stop raining soon.
- “You should read that book; it’s great.”
- He should ask for help if he’s struggling with the project.
Here are some words that you can use instead of “should”:
- Ought to
- Need to
- Have to
- It would be good to
- It’s advisable to
- It’s recommended that
- It’s important to
- It’s necessary to
These are words to say to me instead of “I should.”
- Want to
- Intend to
- Choose to
- Prefer to
- Am committed to
- Am aiming to
- Am working on
- Am striving for
These words can help you approach tasks or goals with autonomy and personal responsibility rather than feeling like you “should” do something out of external pressure or obligation.
It’s important to explore further the term “I should have.” A variation of “I should have” is “could have, would have, should have.” Here, too, there are negative and self-critical meanings. One of the worst has to do with feelings of regret about past decisions or behaviors. None of us can change the past. What we can do is learn from our mistakes or what we perceive as mistakes.
These words and their variations are negative. It is much more helpful for all of us to avoid regret. As the great Buddhist philosopher said,
the past is gone, and we don’t know about the future. We must live in the present because each moment of life is precious. We will never have those moments again.
Let’s stop using “should” or “should have.” And let’s give up regret. Everyone has regrets, but it’s not helpful to dwell on them.