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Of Shoulds And Buts

Two words reliably indicate what's going on within the Inner Team: here's how they work.


Your “shoulds” describe what you feel obliged to do, what you believe is proper. That’s a near perfect description of what your Insider characters influence. The words “have to” and “must” point in the same direction. If you should be accommodating, or you have to be on time or you must be unique, you’re articulating the rules of behavior of your Inner Team’s Insiders (in these examples, Pleaser, Responsible and Special, respectively).


The word “shouldn’t” is equally illuminating because it points directly at an Outsider, which represents what feels forbidden, unwise, or out of bounds.


I used to place a negative judgment on the word “should”, inferring my client was living a life of obligation rather than choice. I would position myself as a direct challenger of my clients’ shoulds, with questions like “Who says?” and “What if you didn’t do what you should do?” Ironically, I was operating from the belief that you shouldn’t have shoulds!


While directly challenging a should is sometimes useful, getting curious about it, and its source on the Inner Team, has produced far deeper learning, and a lot more self-compassion.


Next time your client is “shoulding on themselves”, try getting curious about which character is the source of those shoulds, and what rules of behavior they represent.




“I’d like to leave my job, but I’m not a quitter.” Take out the “but” from this sentence, and you have two distinct, uncoupled statements, each arising from a different character. In this case, a part that wants to quit (Free Agent), and the part which is not a quitter (Loyalist). The word “but” is a reliable indicator that ambivalence is present, the feeling of being pulled in two incompatible directions at the same time.


Each side of an ambivalent statement represents an important perspective, which can be explored separately. Invariably, both perspectives turn out to be valuable, and the discussion of how to include both is always more productive than the exploration of how to choose between them.


Not every “but” statement points at ambivalence, but many do. “I want to go on vacation, but I can’t afford it,” is a statement of fact. “I want to go on vacation, but I don’t want to spend the money on myself,” is ambivalence.



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