Since reading John Bradshaw’s books on family system dysfunction, I have flagged one word to avoid using: SHOULD. Don’t get me wrong. Should is a perfectly good part of the English language. It conveys intention toward a future action or thought, anticipating a need. The problem with should is that it has taken on an additional interpretation that has nothing to do with its true meaning.  Should conveys toxic shame.

 Toxic shame is the feeling of being defective as a person, of feeling unworthy or not enough. The underlying message is: “You’re not all there. You’re not living up to (someone else’s) needs, concerns, and expectations. And it’s your fault.”

Toxic shame usually begins in the families where love is conditional, based on behavior. Living up to parental expectations, no matter how twisted, becomes the goal for children because they want and need love, and don’t believe they can get it without being the good, little girl or boy.

Toxic shame has been used for centuries to push children into adult roles or behaviors. It’s unconsciously passed down from generation to generation. It is endemic in families where abuse of any kind: trauma, war, incarceration, family dysfunction, addiction, or violence have occurred.

Often, adults are busy, distracted, or preoccupied with their own shame. They don’t know how to take a more helpful approach with their kids because they’re so hard on themselves. They confuse guilt with shame. They don’t inquire into their kid’s immature process of making decisions. Thus, they often judgmentally reduce child-rearing to a series of right/wrong, good/bad, actions. The child ends up feeling good/bad, right/wrong as a person, totally apart from their actions. This reduces the child’s self-worth.

Toxic shame usually feels like guilt, as if something wrong was done, when it really wasn’t. This is a legacy firmly rooted for centuries in many spiritual communities. Adults and clergy would convey the need to “earn” God’s love by blindly obeying commands. “God will punish you if you don’t shape up,” or “God will bless you if you conform”, are spiritually and emotionally abusive messages.

 Much of Western and Middle Eastern culture has been based on these messages. Those responsible for moral and ethical formation often conflate true guilt for wrongdoing and toxic shaming. “Justice” systems have used it, and some continue to do so: torture, burning, branding, lynching, mutilation, and penal systems that punish rather than reform.

Ordinary shame is okay, though, even necessary. It reminds us that we are limited human beings who make mistakes or create embarrassment for self or others, like locking your keys in the car, forgetting to turn off the stove, or not recalling someone’s name.

 Toxic shame is far different. It never goes away. Why? Because children automatically incorporate toxic shame into the core of who they are. Kids want to please adults. And they want their love. When the two are linked, toxic shame is the debilitating price people pay for love.

So, what about that word, should?

When we “should upon” ourselves or others, we poison human value and dignity. Using “should” to motivate or control someone’s actions reduces them to an infantile state. They end up hearing a voice from the past that sounds like: “You can’t think for yourself, control your behavior, or make good decisions. You should do what I say, because I know better.”

We have options.

1.     Instead of should, what if you used the words ought to? The meaning is similar to should, but without being burdened with toxic shame overtones.
2.     Another is need to, which points to a necessary action. But be careful of overusing it. I hear religious people use it frequently, and it sometimes carries with it an overtone of shame.
3.     Shall, may be old fashioned sounding, but along with will, describes an emotionally neutral, future-oriented decision.
4.     And must and have to are imperatives that motivate one to decisive action.

 Perhaps it’s time to investigate that “guilty feeling” when you think you’ve done something wrong. Chances are you’ll be able to trace the feeling to a voice in your head. What is it saying? How might it be diminishing your dignity? Keep tracing that voice. I’ll bet it’s an echo coming from a voice in your past. It may be telling you that you’re concerns don’t matter as much as theirs; that you don’t matter as much as they do.

There are ways to get rid of toxic shaming and the words that trigger it. You can end the cycle and the self-flagellation. You can strengthen your personal boundaries so that the memory of past trauma and stressful events no longer get triggered. Start with the word, SHOULD.

Would you like to discuss this further? Contact me. or 813-444-9641.  My book can help: Life Interrupted: Taking Charge After Everything Has Changed