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Switching ‘Should’ for ‘Could’: Transforming Self-Talk from Shame to Choice

Each day, our inner voice narrates our moment-to-moment experiences and decisions. This self-talk is powerful; it can dictate our mood, self-esteem, and outlook. Many of us use ‘should’ when talking to ourselves, which, although seemingly harmless, the word ‘should’ can carry a weight of shame and self-criticism. But what if we replaced ‘should’ with ‘could’? This simple switch can transform our self-talk from a harsh critic to a source of endless possibilities. This linguistic shift will change our self-talk and accelerate positive change, which can be especially helpful when we lack empathetic support.

Understanding ‘Should’ vs. ‘Could’

The word ‘should’ often serves as judge and jury in our internal dialogue, driving us with obligations and perceived duties. It is a word heavy with judgment and expectations—external benchmarks we feel we must meet. When we fail to live up to these ‘shoulds’, we are often left with shame, a sense that we have failed our task and ourselves. This is no exaggeration because often, when it comes to this internal dialogue, if we are prone to self-criticism, a simple thought like “I should have taken the stairs instead of the elevator” has the power to leave a lingering sense of dread that can set the mood for an entire morning.

In stark contrast, ‘could’ is a word that opens doors. It is a word of choice, of potential actions that we can opt into or out of based on our current circumstances and desires. ‘

‘Could’ does not demand; it suggests. It does not confine us to a single path but offers a crossroad filled with options. It empowers us to choose based on what feels right for us in the moment, thus fostering a more exploratory and forgiving approach to self-improvement.

The tone we use in our self-talk can dramatically affect our motivation and perseverance. While ‘should’ might push us towards harsh self-criticism, ‘could’ nurtures a gentler self-dialogue, encouraging us to act out of inspiration rather than guilt or shame. ‘I could have taken the stairs instead of the elevator.” Reminds us that the option still lays ahead and can prompt a more helpful thought of ‘Next time I come into the building I can get more steps in by taking the stairs.” We are more inclined to be successful with that kind of inner dialogue.

Three Steps to Developing More Helpful Self-Talk:

  1. Recognition: Start by listening to your inner dialogue, especially when faced with decisions or reflecting on your day. Notice instances when you use ‘should’ and the emotions it brings up. Does it stir up feelings of inadequacy or regret? Recognizing this pattern is the first step towards changing it.
  2. Reflection: When you say ‘should’, pause and dig deeper. Ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” Are these expectations coming from a personal goal or an external standard you feel pressured to meet? This reflection can help you discern whether your self-talk is serving your well-being or holding you back.
  3. Reformulation: Once you’ve identified a ‘should’, consciously reframe it into a ‘could’. For instance, “I should go to the gym” might become “I could go to the gym, or I could take a long walk, whichever feels more enjoyable today.” This reframing turns a demand into an option, giving you the freedom to choose and the opportunity to align your actions with your personal preferences and values.


By transforming ‘should’ into ‘could’, we can change our self-talk from a source of pressure to a source of empowerment. This shift is more than semantic; it’s about changing our relationship with ourselves to one rooted in empathy and understanding. It’s about creating a compassionate inner ally who supports us in our journey toward health, happiness, and fulfillment. When we embrace ‘could,’ we embrace choice—and with choice comes a sense of agency that can inspire us to live more authentically and freely.

Remember, the way we speak to ourselves matters. It shapes our beliefs, drives our actions, and, ultimately, the quality of our lives. So, next time you find yourself caught in a cycle of ‘should,’ take a moment to pause, reflect, and choose something kinder. Try ‘could,’ and watch how it transforms your perspective, one thought at a time.

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