The One Word to Ignore

Post written by Susan Lacke.

In the midst of being on the support crew for my friend Carlos’ chemotherapy treatments, I’ve been inundated with a million You should’s:

“You should tell him about this doctor.”
“You should come to bible study/temple/meditation with me.”
“You should read this book.”
“You should teach him about juicing.”
“You should be feeling more (insert emotion here).”
“You should be feeling less (insert emotion here).”
“You should check out this website on alternative cancer treatments.”
“You should go see my therapist.”

Though I appreciate the consideration and concern, whenever I hear a “you should,” I want to tell people what they should do. Hint: it isn’t pleasant…nor anatomically possible.

If you’ve experienced the agony of watching someone you care about deeply endure the rigors of chemotherapy, you know it’s one of the most helpless feelings you’ll ever experience. Anything you do just isn’t enough — it doesn’t fix him.

Hearing “you should” only adds to that feeling of incompetence. If I did everything I should, as dictated by everyone around me, I’d be up to my elbows in green juice, books, conflicting emotions, and who knows what else. None of it would make me feel better, and, most importantly, none of it would fix my friend.

In short, I don’t know what I should be doing, but it certainly isn’t any of those things.

You’ve probably experienced it, too.

Every day, we’re told what we should do, and it doesn’t always add up.

We should be eating more vegetables; we should be cautious of pesticides. We should be running for health; we should be concerned about the stress running places on our system.  We should be more compassionate; we should stop being such bleeding hearts.

We should be informed about our world; we should avoid being brainwashed by others. We should love with reckless abandon; we should guard ourselves from heartbreak. We should be kind to everyone; we should be wary of people who are different. We should change; we should stay exactly the same.

We should live life to the fullest. We should be scared of the big, bad world.

If there’s one thing I’m learning from all this, it’s that I don’t give a shit about the shoulds anymore.

It’s easy to get caught up in the shoulds. We place a lot of weight on what others have to say, for a lot of reasons: Maybe we care about what they have to say, or they have expertise on the topic, or, quite simply, they kinda sound like they know what they’re talking about. When you’re in a new and challenging situation, it’s comforting to turn to someone else for guidance. It’s easy to take one of the paths others have taken.

But there’s more than one path, and there’s no guarantee any one will be the right one for you.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anything in life. Sure, you fall into the category of being a human being. That doesn’t mean you need to do the same thing as other human beings. You’re a friend — just like millions of other people with that label. Surely you don’t do things exactly the same way as they do. You may be a parent, spouse, sibling, or child, but certainly not a carbon copy of the parent, spouse, sibling, or child standing next to you.

If the paths you should take aren’t right for you, make your own.

If it feels right in your gut, it’s probably because because it is right.

I’ve accepted I can’t fix Carlos. I don’t like it, but I’ve accepted it. I have to trust in Carlos, his doctors, his nurses, and the medications to do that. In the meantime, all I can do is ignore the shoulds and be whatever he needs me to be — whether it’s a sounding board, a distraction, or someone to just sit in silence with him. When it gets to be too much for me to deal with, I’ve finally found my coping mechanism:

Every other Friday, when Carlos is in the midst of his of chemotherapy treatment, I go to my old pool where he and I used to train together with a Masters group.

Sometimes I see our old coach, and we chat before doing intervals. Sometimes I start the stopwatch, leave it by the pool, and swim until I can’t swim anymore. Sometimes I talk to the blue stripe, and sometimes it talks back to me. Sometimes bubbles come out of my nose as I laugh, sometimes my goggles fill up with tears, and sometimes I get mad and punch the water with every stroke.

But every time, one thing is for certain: For me, this pool is a hell of a lot better than any book or therapist.

It’s exactly what I should be doing.

Whatever your situation, don’t be afraid to ignore the shoulds. Even if you start out feeling lost, you’ll eventually realize you’ve known the right path all along.

“I will dare to do just what I do. Be just what I am. And dance whenever I want to.” – Beverly Williams

Susan Lacke, No Meat Athlete’s Resident Triathlete, also writes a monthly column for Competitor Magazine and a weekly blog for, and tweets at @SusanLacke.



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  1. You “should” be doing exactly what you ARE doing. There are few things worse than going through what you are right now. Being a caregiver is a tough job and I’m sure your friend appreciates you more than you even know. I hope your friend feels better very soon.

    ps – LOVE the blog, have been reading for a while now.

  2. Love this!

  3. You should be doing EXACTLY what you are doing: a best friend. Let oncologists be oncologists, nurses be nurses, nutritionists be nutritionsts, etc. You know how it is, everybody has good intentions and are so willing to give unsolicited advice. I cannot go running around from one miracle cure to another. Most of the time, when I am not doing chemo, what I want the most is a friend to help me have a regular life. Thank you, Susan!

  4. A friend once told me that “should” is a word that “should” be removed from our vocabulary. That advice has always stuck with me.

  5. I have a therapist friend who calls this “Shoulding all over yourself.” or “Shoulding on people.”

  6. Loved this post! My friend sent it to me, thinking that I’d appreciate it, since I recently had a similarly themed post on my blog ( It’s comforting to know that others out there are thinking the same slightly hostile thoughts towards all those “shoulds”… cheers to making our own paths!

  7. Cassandra says:

    Excellent post. Thank you.

  8. Love this!!
    Running is therapy for me … whether it’s grieving the loss of my sister or adjusting to the limitations in my own life from injuries. Sometimes I use my watch, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry … but for the most part it’s been the best therapy I can find.
    Swim on!!

  9. Great post! I know that when my husband left for his deployment, I had shoulds coming out my yin yang! It can be hard to hear your own voice when it’s being overshadowed by everyone else’s advice. I know they mean well, but only I know what’s best for me.*

  10. And my energetic, beautiful, kind, generous, wonderful 64 year-young boyfriend Ira “Iraman” Yermish, an Ironman and marathoner many times over SHOULDN’T have died on 7/23/11 of a fatal heart arrhythmia. He wrote a lovely blog like you do:
    I wish Carlos the best of luck and strength to get him through this. And to you too.

  11. Matt – First of all, I’m so sorry about your friend. I hope that he gets better and I’m glad he has someone like you to be there for him.

    About the post – I love it (despite the somber tone, it does have great insight). It reminds me of this book I read years ago in college when I was going through a really difficult breakup, and the book had this instruction in it: “stop *shoulding* all over yourself.”

    Ever since then, when things get down I repeat that quote to myself. Sounds like have stopped *shoulding* too. 🙂

  12. I almost cried when I read this because it is a great representation of how I have felt in difficult situations. I try turning to counselors, therapists, religion, friends, family, etc. and everyone gives me a different solution or route that I should do or take to fix what I’m feeling. Only recently did I realize that I knew how to take care of my difficulties the whole time, and it was only when I stopped listening to everyone else and did what I wanted that I felt better.
    Thank you so much for sharing your story, it always helps to know that others are dealing with similar situations.

  13. While I agree with much of what you wrote, the one thought I’ll share is that in this and every other situation we’re either allowing someone, be it the oncologist or others to tell us what we “should” be doing. Who’s to say the oncologist is any more right than the person who authored a book after beating their cancer with alternative therapies? Unfortunately more people are killed by the conventional western medicine treatments (IE Chemo) than the cancer itself. So, choose wisely whom you let “should” on you because chances are someone is in every situation. My best to you and your friend. No doubt a very difficult situation for you both. Health, Happiness & Blessings, ~ Robert

  14. Grace Rusth says:

    One of the most memorable quotes from my Psychology degree “Don’t should on yourself or others”.

  15. Ann-Drea says:

    My mother passed away from cancer 2 years ago and I honestly don’t remember anyone telling me what I “should” be doing. If they were, I was more concerned about spending the last weeks and eventually days of her life with her. Likely “shoulding” is a result of their anxiety or discomfort with knowing someone that they know or that they are friend’s with knows that has a serious illness.

    I’ve noticed a lot of older people will provide suggestions for things that may be none of their business, but I just take it with a grain of salt. I figure if someone has lived their whole life and lived through several wars (particularly my boyfriends grandfather who lived through the Nazis AND the communists in Poland), the least I can do is listen to a little “shoulding”. If someone can give me some worthwhile information that I can research further on my own, then I welcome and respect that. If it’s not worthwhile, then I just ignore it.

  16. I struggle with “should” a lot in my life as well. For too long I was trying to please others and do what I “should”. I never stopped to think about what I want and need. Now I always make sure to sit down and think about what I truly want and what is important to me. Others are sometimes very quick to give you their opinions and let’s face it – if it is difficult for us to figure out what we want, outsiders have no chance in hell to do that instead of us. So the answer is always within us – we should just keep looking until we find it.

    I hope your friend gets better!

  17. I just did a whole post recently about “should-ing” on people. Seems like there’s an epidemic of it going around. I’m sorry to hear what your friend is having to endure in trying to be well again, but I’m grateful that he has a strong person to depend on in the midst. If I were to “should” anything on you, it would be to say “Just be a friend” – but it looks life you’ve already got that one well covered.

  18. OMG – when I was a humanities major, one of the assignments was to write an epic mythical tale. The evil god in my story was called “Should.” This is too cool to read your story. I thought I was the only one… once again you’ve made my year.

    PS. I realize I’m so freakin’ old: that assignment was done on a typewriter.

  19. David Bullock, D.O. says:

    I just wanted to say it sounds like you are handling one of the worst situations you can ever find yourself in, in a very mature and stable way. I applaud you for that.
    I do have a suggestion, but won’t say you should do this, for obvious reasons! There is a book called Eat to Live written by Dr. Joel Fuhrman who’s a Family Practice doctor who is probably the best translator for the layperson of the facts that have been found and are proven about nutrition, into usable form in how to eat to lose weight, gain health, reverse diabetes, reverse heart disease, and greatly lessen the likelihood of getting cancer. From this last part, I would also conclude that his dietary recommendations will also help with not only recovery from cancer, but also with recovery from the ill effects of chemotherapy.
    He has been seen hundreds of times now on PBS doing a presentation called “3 Steps to Incredible Health,” and he has hundreds of patients who’ve lost enormous amounts of weight, gotten healthier, reversed severe coronary artery disease, etc.

    I know all this sounds like the usual hype that everyone makes about all the latest fad diets, but I am a physician myself who was in to nutritional supplements and how to get better without drugs for the last 40 years. I was very skeptical about Dr. Fuhrman when I first heard of him in 2003, and I thoroughly checked out his book (Eat To Live) and found that he has over 1,000 footnotes documented to the original medical journal sources to prove what he says is accurate. BUT I didn’t take his word about that, and went to the original sources myself to be sure he wasn’t misinterpreting what the studies showed. I was quite impressed when a couple of his references took me to abstracts that did not say what he said the article said about nutrition. I reason I was impressed was because, after I read the entire article of 8 to 10 pages I was astonished to find that Dr. Fuhrman had summarized the actually findings of the research Better than the Researcher Himself did in the Abstract ! ! ! This was unprecedented and also made me realize how important it is for me to read the entire research article in the future, as abstracts can be misleading ! !

    Anyway, if any of this hits you as something to look into, I hope you will, and that it will help him feel better and recover faster.

    Meanwhile, what you ‘should’ do, is follow your inner direction and listen to your inner calm speak to you and follow that guidance, not mine or anyone else’s !

    Best Wishes, Dr. David

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