Is “should” ever necessary?


A faithful reader asks

What’s the best response to “I should have ______  (done x y z more) and if I had, things would be different now”?     Thank you.”




Ah, yes!  Our “Darling Shoulds!”  How we resist relinquishing them!   As if they were some jewel more precious than diamonds!   😉 



“What’s wrong with

 “If I had done more xyx, things would be different” ???  And then, “Too damn bad!  But it is not the end of the world.  Now, what can I learn from this situation?”

Why the need to insert the “should”?  It is redundant and unnecessary in the example you have presented.

The essence of this is, that
conditional shoulds, predictive shoulds, and empirical shoulds are benign, such as.

Predictive should

  • It’s 7:59, the 8:00 o’clock bus should be along any time now.

  • You are expecting Fred. The doorbell rings: “That must be Fred now.”

Conditional shoulds

  • If you want to lose weight, you must eat less and exercise more.
  • If you want me to like you, you should whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

Empirical shoulds 

  • If you mix yellow and blue you should get green.

Recommendations – Suggestions

  • You should see the new Christopher Nolan film.

(My enthusiastic suggestion that you see a film or read a book or try a new restaurant is hardly a demand)




Shoulds that represent absolutist, moralistic demands, on the other hand, are not so benign, especially when coupled with awfulizing, and then rating.

The bus must come soon.  I can’t stand it when the stupid bus doesn’t come on time.  The damn thing is always late.

 You should whisper sweet nothings in my ear, or I shall be devastated!  Since I love you so much, you must return my love!

You must lose weight, and as you don’t do as you must, you are a disgusting pig!

It is much more important, in my opinion, to understand the principle and dynamics at work here that to get overly-academic and overly-fussy about language.  The goal is to learn to readily distinguish  preferences from demands, hassles from horrors, bad behavior from bad people . . . and to work rigorously and consistently to move aware from what Gary Emery calls the “Should System” and operate more and more form the “Choice System.”


For me, it is just easier to avoid using shoulds in all their overt as well as disguised forms (as much as possible). These forms are NOT necessary for clear and intelligent communication.  Possibly more important, even if I am clear that I am using a should conditionally or predictively, or playfully, or in some other way that is not demanding, other people may reacting to it consciously or unconsciously as a demand.


I would say, use any language you want; but the REBT goal is to organize our thinking, emoting and behaving, our relationships with others and with the world at large in ways that involve preferences, not demands, reactions to negative events as hassles-not-horrors, realizing that when people behave badly, that does not make them “bad people.”

And one finally thing, perhaps not entirely on topic.  When Dr. Ellis refers to people as “fallible humans being,”  trust me kiddies, he doesn’t mean that!  Dr. Ellis knows very well that although people have a strong tendency to behave fallibly, that does not make them fallible human beings. Following Korzybski ‘s lead, Dr. Ellis “wrote the book” on this stuff, for Pete sake!   I really have no idea why he enjoys that phraseology. It is confusing to newbies, and it is not kosher General Semantics.   Possibly because it is catchy and helps him make his point, possibly because he assumes his readers are intelligent enough to realize he is taking a sort of “poetic license” which should be regarded as an expression, not as literally. Possibly he was just responding unconsciously to the Judeo-Christian  mythology of  “original sin.”?  Dunno.  We can speculate until the cows come home.   The point is, that even though human beans have a strong tendency to behave fallibly, to make mistakes, to think, emote and behave irrationally, that does not make them fallible human beans, only human beans who SOMETIMES–but certainly not always–behave fallibly.

Warm regards,




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Originally posted 2013-07-12 20:46:46.

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  • Excellent article, clarifying demandingness. Watch out for automatic spelling that changes “human beings” into “human beans”. I don’t think Ellis ment “beans” even though he at times used “nuts” humorously when speaking to groups: “People are all nuts, just look at your closest friends and relatives 😊”. “Screwballs”, was for example another word he sometimes used for human beings, The counting on listeners fine sense of humor.

    • Thanks for your comments, Gunnar.  Actually, “human beans” is mine; my deliberate attempt at humor. Perhaps  not all that funny and too subtle without adding an ironic smiley face But it does serve to showcase your superb proofreading skills!

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