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I propose an experiment. Part 1 requires you to pay attention to how often you say or think the word “should” over the course of a day. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be surprised at how often it comes up.
I should study tonight.
I should do research this summer.
I should work out in the mornings.
What’s wrong with “should”? For one thing, it implies obligation and powerlessness. When I tell myself all the things I should do, I begin to believe (if I don’t already) that I have to do them. Then, when I don’t complete the task, as I often don’t, I become guilty: I’ve failed.
This undertone is most obvious in the past tense. For example, I can’t count the number of times I’ve the entire weekend before a big exam studying, only to realize how much I still needed to learn on Sunday night. Every time this has happened, I either said or thought: I should have studied more.
When I say I “should have” done something, what I’m really saying is that I was supposed to do it, but I didn’t—and it was wrong that I didn’t. I’m saying that I’m bad/wrong/lazy/dumb/unproductive/etc.
Or, more succinctly: “Should” is shit.
I wish I had come up with this motto, but it comes to you courtesy of my favorite MS1 lecturer, Dr. O. She included it in an American Medical Women’s Association lecture, within the context of not comparing ourselves to others. I almost got tears in my eyes when I first heard it, because it’s so perfectly simple and true. Should IS shit. It’s a horrible word! So why use it?
Which brings me to part 2 of the experiment: whenever you notice yourself using “should,” try replacing it with the word “could.”
I could study tonight.
I could do research this summer.
I could work out in the mornings.
Hopefully the difference between “should” and “could” is jumping off the screen at you. Both words fit equally well into the exact same sentences but have very different implications. “Could” implies possibilities, choices, and power.
I could study tonight… But I choose to watch Bones instead.
I could do research this summer… But I choose to spend time with my grandma while she’s still around.
I could work out in the mornings… But I don’t WANT to.
Perhaps I sound a bit self-helpy at this point, but oh well—I’m passionate about this. “Could” is one of the simplest and most powerful methods we can use to change our patterns of thinking. “Could” validates the choices we actually make, not the ones other people might make. It allows us to stop comparing ourselves to other premeds, med students, or doctors. And it reminds us that we choose what to do with our time; if we aren’t satisfied with how we spend our time, there are many other things we could do.
So don’t “should” on yourself!
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