I hate the word “should.”
I also hate the word “just” (as an adverb).
In my book, these two words are profane. They’re worse than any number of slang terms to describe the reproductive or execretory organs or their outputs. They’re shamey, they’re harmful, and they have no place in the vocabulary of anyone who cares about their own or anyone else’s mental health.
I would like to punt them both directly into the sun.
But here: Let me tell you how I really feel.
“Should” is the Borg Queen of unhelpful words when it comes to mental or emotional health. It’s worthless because it describes a place you are not at. It describes a state of being that you do not have. By definition.
“You should get out more.”
“You should quit worrying so much.”
“You should quit drinking.”
…No, see, that solution is for a different problem than the one I have.
Think of “should” in terms of a map. “Should” isn’t where you are. It’s a different place than the place you are. Maybe that place is awesome! Maybe everyone wants to be there! But you are not there.
“You should get out more” in response to depression, or my all-time favorite “you should get more sleep” in response to insomnia, are exactly as helpful as if you were standing on Woodward Ave. in Detroit and someone said to you, “You should be in Chicago.”
Okay. Maybe Chicago is great. Maybe Chicago has everything you could possibly want or need. But right now, you are in Detroit.
Telling people about Chicago while they are in Detroit isn’t helpful. Here’s what would be:
- Asking about their satisfaction with their current location. (“Do you like it here in Detroit? Would you rather be in Chicago?”)
- Helping them identify the steps needed to get to Chicago. (“You’re headed east, and Chicago is west of here.”)
- Working out a strategy to get to Chicago. (“You can get on I-94 and go straight there, or Amtrak also has trains that go that way.”)
- Providing resources to help them get to Chicago. (“Do you have a car? Can you afford a train ticket?”)
The same is true when talking to someone who is struggling with their mental or emotional well-being. Saying “you should….” doesn’t help. If they were already where your “should” is trying to send them, they wouldn’t be struggling in the first place.
Instead, find out where they want to go, and see if they want your help to find ways to get there.
“Just,” the adverb, often rides along with “should.” Whether it’s together or alone, though, it’s crap.
“You should just get out more.”
“Just stop worrying.”
“You just need to get more sleep.”
If a mental or emotional health hurdle has gotten big enough to negatively affect someone’s ability to function – and I guarantee you aren’t hearing about it unless it’s distressing them in some way – they’re already past “just.” “Just” is somewhere on the other side of the horizon.
If fixing it were “just” that easy, they’d have fixed it already.
To return to the previous analogy, if I’m standing in front of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament on Woodward Ave. in Detroit, and I’m distressed by how badly I want to eat some Church’s Chicken, I can “just” walk two blocks and solve my problem. Walking two blocks is not a problem for me, so chances are good that by the time you’re done saying “you can just walk down there,” I’m already in line ordering my lunch.
But if I’m standing in front of the cathedral and nothing will satisfy me except a giant bowl of ice cream from Margie’s Candies in Chicago, telling me to “just walk down there” is not helpful. That’s a 273-mile walk, or about 90 hours, assuming I don’t get hit by a car on M-60.
Instead of “just”:
- Ask how they’re doing. (“Are you hungry? Do you need lunch?”)
- Find out what might help. (“Does chicken sound good, or are you in an ice cream mood?”)
- Offer ways to get it. (“We can drive there, but it’ll take a few hours. Are you up for the trip?”)
I’ve been dealing with mental illness literally as long as I can remember, and one of the hardest parts of recovery for me has been eliminating the words “should” and “just” from my internal and external vocabularies.
They’re tempting to reach for in tough times, because they’re easy. They feel like helping without actually doing the work required to be present in the moment, to understand the problem, and to find and implement adaptive responses.
That’s also precisely why they suck.
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