Motivate yourself with could not should

If you cut out the guilt and shame by using “could” instead of “should”, you might find it easier to get motivated.

I was at a motivational lecture. The speaker was trying to inspire the audience: “We should try to be more accepting of ourselves. We should be more accepting of others …” With regards to health: “We should try to walk or exercise every day.” The word “should” was repeated like a hammer on the head.

I wondered if he might have done better by using the word “could”. It’s only semantics, yet these two words can mean the difference between happiness and frustration. Think about it. “I should be doing something more interesting with my life”; “I should be going to the gym”; “I should give up alcohol”; “I should ring my mother”. (Guilt, shame, guilt, shame…)

“Could” is more flexible and opens the door to opportunity rather than chastisement. It’s an invitation to ourselves. “I could be doing something more creative with my time.” “Hmmm, I could go for a nice brisk walk instead of sitting here watching TV.” The suggestion is kinder and comes from a completely different voice within.

Transactional analysis, a form of therapy founded by US psychiatrist Eric Berne (author of Games People Play), suggests we have several personas in the one body. To put it simplistically, at various times we hear the voices of the inner parent, adult, or child in our heads. We can be a nurturing parent or a critical parent to ourselves, a happy child or a rebellious, “childish” one. If the parent part of ourselves says: “Wow Ruth, that’s great work!” it encourages the creative child within. When we are a bully and critical parent to ourselves, the childish part bucks up and turns petulant and rebellious.

“Could” and “should” play a role in motivating us. Suggestion: “We could go to the beach for a walk and play in the sand” (happy inner child skips along), versus statement: “We should go to the beach for a walk” (image of child being dragged out the door).

US psychologist Albert Ellis’s rational emotive behaviour therapy is form of cognitive therapy that helps us fight against using words to reinforce our negative behaviour.

One of the fundamental premises is that humans don’t just get upset by adversity. They get upset by what they’ve made that adversity mean in their minds through the use of negative language, catastrophising and flawed beliefs. By reframing self-talk we can reframe experience.

I bet many people felt poorly at the lecture I attended as their critical parent chastised them (“I should do more exercise, I’m a lazy person”). The point is to become inspired, not self-defeating. What a difference a “sh” can make to a successful outcome.

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