Mental health, burnout, and learning adaptability are filled with the word ‘should’. It is a powerful word. I saved this word for the last blog in this series on burnout, because I believe it is pertinent regardless of your state of affairs.

“Effective management is putting first things first. While leadership decides what “first things” are, it is management that puts them first, day-by-day, moment-by-moment. Management is discipline, carrying it out.”

– Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, p. 148

I think ‘should’ may be one of the most dangerous words in the English language. It represents ambiguity. And I believe it is one of the best ways to move the mind from values to urgency. Its use in leadership spells out burnout. And I recall vividly how the ‘shoulds’ around me changed my value system and reoriented my sense of centre in what I did as a leader. Daily.

On various occasions I have discussed how powerful the word ‘should’ is in our common language and understanding. It does not get a lot of credit for how strong it really is, but that does not make it any less. In conversation it conveys the need for some expectation to be fulfilled, whether future, present or past tense. In thought, it binds a person with the same tenacity as one considers what they did not do, how actions could have been different, words might have been different, the situation may have changed, or could have been different. In the future, our thinking says it will be different. Different. That is the key. I need to be different. I ‘should’ be different, in past, present and future tense.

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

– Goethe

The power of should is quite ridiculous. When we consider how changing the past is a lie we somehow buy into, then the ‘shoulds’ of the past are negative in nature. When we truthfully look at how we fuel the actions of the future with this type of evaluation of the past, we can quickly realize how low a place we really start from in living as one who desires excellence in all they do. When we ‘should’ do something we have conceded that we are not able to live beyond the mere reaction to what comes our way in all matters, rather than acting out of what we believe is true and right in the moment. We, in fact, have conceded that we are no better than our latest set of failures, and seek to only retroactively reverse those moments of life which we have probably over thought anyway. This place of ‘should’ is fairly dark because it controls us from the perspective of guilt and fallenness; reality yes, but not our driving force in life.

Should is also a point of gravitational pull to the values of others. The darkest place of ‘should’ is when we start to move our centre based on the comments and perceived thoughts of others. Even worse, when our own values and directions come into question based on the opinions of others. We ‘should on others’ all the time. That is a catchy little HR term that gets thrown around a lot, basically meaning: Do not set generalized values in place for the people around you. They are already doing what they think they ‘should’. This is one of the key roots of burnout and the stress that plants the seed before it. The ‘shoulds’ of others become arbitrary marching orders, left like a minefield for the stressed out mind.

So is ‘should’ ever a positive thing? Can we think about things in a proper place of ‘should’ or is it all bad? When we can consider those things that we would like to achieve in life as goals or helpful directions to a better or more complete place in life, then we ‘should’. This perspective of the word is not simply semantics but is a place of changed attitude in life. It is the ability to give all that has burdened us in the past to God, literally “casting our burdens” (1 Peter 5:7) as we are told to do in Scripture, and not using them as a fuel to make us better. Those burdens are actually poison to a hungry soul. Should in a positive sense is always future tense and with a view to excellence, not simply correcting the sense of failure of the past.

The Bible actually gives some fairly healthy ‘shoulds’ for us to consider in daily life…

It is here where we can see the need to seek forgiveness if we have hurt someone, to make a situation right if it has been wronged (Matthew 18:15), to “examine your heart” and seek out the correction of matters which are in our control (1 Corinthians 11:28). And what about discovering how you can feed the hungry, taking care of those in need around you, or simply bringing about social justice to the best of your ability, while trying to keep personally pure (James 1:27)? Or how about creating a place of community among other believers, and not jeopardizing how we come together in peace (Hebrews 10:25)? Can you be a blessing to all those around you no matter how they treat you, bringing God’s joy to life because He gave it to you to give (Romans 12:14-17)? Those are ‘shoulds’ we can live with and walk through life in accompaniment. But how do you live with these ‘shoulds’ without making them into new laws for life, or creating yet another set of personal failures?

“If you are unable to manage yourself, I have to manage you.”

– Eric Friesen, the Dad

I suppose the truth of a good ‘should’ is personally evaluating how often I move out of guilt and negative external motivation. In other words, if I am simply playing the tape recorder of life through my head on a regular basis, and reliving that which has already been forgiven, I am abiding by the great adversary of the soul. Or abiding in the past tense, if that is even possible, by the personal convictions of another. Either way, a lot of power and authority is given away as these impossible ‘shoulds’ are being sought after.

A good should is less about not measuring up, and more about being empowered from within to do what you are capable of doing. Doing what is right and what is necessary in your context without losing your sense of centre. Further, not allowing the ‘shoulds’ of others to take up space in your mind, rent free. Setting personal measures of success, not having it dictated to you is a place of incredible strength.

How ‘should’ you then live?

With true conviction and direction based on your values and sense of personal freedom. Anyone can ‘should’ on you; but mental strength dictates that you wipe it off.

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