The words “should”, “could” and “would” are poison. Things happen in the only way they can happen, unless of course you do not believe that life is driven by a chain of cause and effect. These three words have a fundamental assumption at their root – that of free-will. When we say we should have done something we are immediately implying that we have free will, and in the circumstances we are considering could have done differently. The word “should” is most often used in a negatives sense – regret, perceived failure and obligation. You should work harder. You should have locked your car and then it would not have been stolen. You should not lose your temper.
Our superego – the part of us that is full of idealizations thrives on should and shouldn’t. It stands over us like a judge commenting on our performance in a given situation. All the should’s and shouldn’ts are programmed by people around us – parents, teachers, peers, employers, religious figures. What they all fail to understand is that we have no free will and so the word “should” is almost without meaning. It would be like asking a brick that has been thrown at a window to not break it. We could reprimand the brick afterwards and tell it that it shouldn’t have broken the window, and look on disapprovingly.
“Could have” and “would have” live in the same stable, making us believe that things might have been different if only we had been different.
Emotions such as guilt and remorse are very closely linked to these words. You could have done better at school. You should have been more prudent with your money. You would be much healthier if you had exercised regularly. These words are the words of control. They cause us to compare ourselves with fictitious states of affairs that have not come about.
The real tragedy of these words however is that they take us away from the real. They allow us to indulge in unproductive imagination, believing that life might be so much better, while our real lives go ignored.
Everything that happens in our life is absolutely necessary – there is no contingency. There is also no room for regret, guilt, remorse or any similar negative emotions. If something has not gone well we simply get on with the task of trying to move things in our favor – as far as we can.
Things are as they are, and they were never going to be other than they are. Drop the guilt trips and the fanciful imaginings, and above all tell anyone who suggests you “should”, “could” or “would” to mind their own business.