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Shifting from Should to Could

Should stifles us with labels and expectations. It is a giant, dank cloud of duty. It sucks.

“A dock that is lit up at night time over calm water in Rimini” by Radek Grzybowski on Unsplash

In her book You Can Heal Your Life, Louise Hay suggests you make a list of all the things you think you should do.

Then, she instructs, go through each item on the list and ask Why.

Why should I…. (fill in the blank)?

I did this little exercise several months ago.

I went through my list and asked each item why I should do it, why it should exist in my reality.

Most of my answers were like this: “Because if I don’t, then X bad thing will happen.” Or like this: “Because if I don’t, I won’t get X good thing.”

Once you’ve gone through the list, Hay tells you to go through it again. This time, replace each “I should” with the phrase, “If I really wanted to, I could….”

The difference is kind of amazing.

How I feel when I say “I should” is any or all of the following: limited, uncertain, guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, bad, weak, confused, burdened, controlled, lethargic, hopeless.

How I feel when I say “I could” is completely different: interested, open, curious, excited, confident, capable, enthusiastic, energized, certain.



Should is a burden.

The word itself is innocuous, as all words are. It’s the meaning assigned to it that makes it burdensome.

Should comes to us in shadows of morality, ancient and modern. No, don’t pretend that legalistic codes of morality belong to the past, to out-dated regimes and irrelevant religions. Find me a tribe — any tribe — and I’ll find you a moral code. Agreeing on what is good, and, conversely, what is not good, is the heart of most groups. That’s fine. It becomes dangerous only when the group decides they have an exclusive line on what’s good. An ultimate, absolute say on it.

Should loves a dichotomy.

Should creeps into our psyches and winds us around with chains of obligation and assumption. It stifles us with labels and expectations. It is a giant, dank cloud of duty. It sucks.

Should is not helpful. Should can be dangerous.

Should reeks of all the dry, dead stuff we use as a substitute for motivation and courage and desire and energy.

Should grows from old traditions and outdated roles you might be better off leaving behind.

Should keeps you from asking Why. It does not encourage the asking of Why. Should wants to be its own reason.

But it doesn’t deserve to be a reason.

It is often nothing more than the remnant of a system you’ve walked away from, a scrap of attachment you haven’t yet cut. What’s the value in it? Is it serving you? Is it serving anyone?

Should keeps you spending your energy on stuff you may not even care about.

Should feels like (and is) a big heavy rusty set of chains. It weighs you down, slows you down, hinders you, blinds you to possibilities, blinds you to your own value.

Should assumes that your value comes from being of service to others, in one way or another. This is a lie. Your value is inherent in you. Your worth is not action-based but existence-based.

You are, therefore you are worthy.

Notice how the “I shoulds” always come before the “I wants”?

What’s up with that?

It’s the nature of Should to come first, to bully its way to the front. All of our Shoulds are based on identity; so they become more important than anything else. We accept a Should, not because we want it, or because it’s helpful.

We accept it because it’s attached to an identity.

An identity we want.

God, do we want to know who we are. We sacrifice our lives on the altar of Identity. The knife of Should stabs deep. We bleed ourselves out. We let it happen. We fucking volunteer for it. We fear being without identity more than we fear anything else.

So we keep listening to the Shoulds and letting them rule us.

We keep wasting our lives.

Should is often based on Role or Position. The existence of a particular role is often the only justification for the existence of a whole set of “I shoulds.”

What if you don’t like that role?

What if you’ve left that position?

What if it’s a role you never asked for?

What if someone else’s definition of that particular role is different than yours?

Should doesn’t ask about reality, or progress, or desire, or energy, or motivation, or possibility.

Basing your choices on Should can keep you stuck pursuing goals that you don’t love and perfection that isn’t possible. It will keep you stuck somewhere. Should is static. Should is about keeping things the way they are. Should is not about growth.

Should has only two gifts to give. If you succeed, if you accomplish the Should, you get relief. Not joy. Not happiness. Not peace. Only relief.

And if you fail? You get the other gift: guilt.

Because Should carries a moral implication, if you fail, you are not simply a failure. Oh, no. You are so much worse. You are bad. You are wrong. You have missed the mark. You have given up your claim to the particular identity you’re trying to be. You’re a hypocrite.

That’s what Should says. That’s what Should wants you to believe.

You cannot get away from Should by saying Should Not. That’s what we try.

But saying Should Not is giving credence to the foundation of Should. If you argue against Should using its own rules, you lose, no matter what.

Should Not still bows to the dogma, the moral code, the systemic rules, the legalistic structure: whatever thing that Should is based on, Should Not is, too. Should Not is the converse of Should, which means that the two are joined. Inseparable. Start throwing Should Nots around, and you’ll only find yourself tangled up in a new, more complex, and more confusing world of Shoulds.

You get away from Should by using a new word. A better word.


It rhymes! How convenient. But that’s the only similarity between Should and Could.

Could is a different beast, from a different land. Could arrives from a sea of infinite futures, endless options. Could wraps you up in a sense of your own possibility. Could is about Desire, and Power, and Freedom, and Choice.

Could is fucking magical.

Here’s what saying Could might do for you.

  • It can help you see your own power.
  • It can make you aware of your position as the designer of your own life, the builder of your own experience.
  • It can remove you from a position of helplessness and victimization. It reorients you. Suddenly you’re in the driver’s seat. You see your ability to take action. You realize that you decide what you do or don’t do.
  • Could forces you to see your desires and what you’re doing about them, or not doing. It asks you to look at your abilities and be clear about how you’re using them.
  • Could reminds you that you can use your abilities to achieve your own desires. Or you can allow your abilities to be used in the service of someone else’s desires.
  • Could helps you to name and understand the implied duties of any role you’re in. Naming those implied duties is a good way to decide if the role is one you want, or not. Or perhaps you want it, but you need to redefine it, on your own terms.
  • Could helps you make conscious choices about the direction of your concentration and energy. When you say, I could, you’re also implying I could not. I could choose NOT to do this. There is power in refusal. Could reminds you that you have that power.
  • Could can help you release what you don’t want to do or be. (I mean, I could, but why would I want to?)

Could is valuable in another way, too. It helps you see what might be outside the limits of your power.

Maybe you feel obligated to achieve some ideal, reach some hypothetical perfection. Saying “I should” can keep you stuck trying to achieve something impossible. Saying “I could” forces you to hear how ridiculous the standard is. Once you see that, it’s one more small step to realize it’s a waste of energy, and to let it go.

Could helps you frame each potential action as objectively as possible.

It diminishes the moral implications of a choice. With Could, you pull the decision out of a black-and-white dichotomy and into the rainbow realm of endless possibilities.

That can be overwhelming, but it’s also freeing.

What would you choose if you didn’t see each choice in its assigned spot inside a predefined morality grid?

How would you choose if you didn’t calculate the effect your choice would have on someone else’s happiness or approbation?

Could helps you realize that your ultimate power and ultimate responsibility are right here, in you. This is a scary realization. You are able to do what you want to do.

What’s stopping you? You are.

What’s setting you free and moving your forward? You are.

Your choices or lack of choices. Your decision or indecision. Your movement forward or stagnant self-positioning. Your posture, your behavior, your routines, your tiny actions, day after day, adding up to an “I could and I did” or “I could have, but I didn’t.”

Either one is fine.

What’s important is to know that it’s a choice you make, for yourself, every day.

Once you’ve changed your list from “I should” to “I could,” there’s one more step.

Go through each item on the list again and ask, “Why haven’t I?”

There’s clarity available in that question.

Sometimes the answer is so obvious and freeing: “I haven’t because I don’t want to.”

Now you know, so you can let that item go. Release that potential to the Universe, to be taken to someone who does want to.

Maybe the answer is something like this:

  • I need help.
  • I need some item or tool or resource I don’t have.
  • I don’t know how to start.
  • I want to succeed at this so bad but I’m terrified of trying and failing.

Those answers give you somewhere to start.

Could gives you clarity. Could shows you desire. And if there’s desire in your answer, focus on it. Let the suppressed energy of your desires carry you forward on a wave of Could.

You’ll hit some bumps. Don’t worry.

That’s just the old Shoulds rolling under you, behind you, being left behind.

You don’t need them anymore.

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