Do you compare yourself to others? Do you compare your progress or abilities with standards set by others, such as society, your parents, the media, your friends? Are you judging yourself using “should” statements?
“I should be getting better grades than I am.”
“I should go to the gym more often.”
“I should weigh less than I do.”
“I should have more friends, like my roommates do.”
“I should keep my room/apartment tidier than it is.”
“I should have a plan for what I want to do with my life by now.”
“I should be a better daughter.”
I want to tell you that I think it’s important that you stop “shoulding” on yourself. Unfortunately, “shoulds” (also “musts”, “need to’s”) point out that we are not measuring up in some ways, that what we are doing/ how we are doing is not good enough. The unspoken follow-up to “I should” is “…but I’m not”. Although “should” may occasionally provide helpful guidance, more often it makes us feel inadequate. Rarely are “shoulds” used to tell yourself that you are doing a good job.
“Should statements” are another example of how our “inner critic”, that negative voice in our heads, can make us feel bad, unsuccessful, somehow behind in life. It is one of the negative thinking patterns, or cognitive distortions, identified by psychiatrists Aaron Beck and David Burns. (Catastrophizing, and black and white thinking (discussed in other blogs) are also examples of cognitive distortions.). These cognitive distortions are considered to be automatic and unhelpful thinking styles, that lead to negative feelings.
“Should statements” tell us that we are doing something wrong, that we are not meeting the standards. So, what’s wrong with trying to meet standards?
- One problem is that those standards are often arbitrary. There are no rulebooks, no laws, no regulations that say that there is only one right way to be. Not everybody will get the same grades, weigh the same or have the same number of friends. We may not have had many choices about what we could do when we were young, but as adults we are freer to choose, to figure out what’s right for us, what fits with our life experience and values, to develop our own standards. “Shoulds” put a lot of pressure on us and contribute to higher levels of stress.
- A second problem with should statements is that they don’t actually help us to meet our goals. Telling yourself that you “should be” doing more or being more doesn’t necessarily help you to do more or be more. In fact, “shoulds” may leave you feeling guilty, and possibly defeated, which makes it harder to get things done.
- A third problem relates to the fact that cognitive distortions, like “should” statements, are automatic. They pop into our minds without a lot of conscious thought or reasoning. We don’t usually take the time to figure out whether they are reasonable, logical or sensible.
So what can you do with your “should statements”?
- First, you can consider whether they do make sense for you. Is there evidence that supports the idea that your “should” is true? Challenge them (i.e., “why do I need a plan for my whole life, at this stage of life?” or “what is the reason that everyone should be a size 4?”). Notice what beliefs underlie them. Consider the possibility of flexibility. Is that “should” way of thinking helping or hurting you?
- Second, try to find a more balanced, more flexible thought that can be more helpful. Consider alternative ways to think. Look for a better linguistic choice.
- For example, consider using “want” statements instead of shoulds. Rather than “I should eat better”, saying to yourself “I want to eat more nutritious foods” lends itself to coming up with strategies to achieve your “want”. That is more constructive than giving yourself a reprimand for not doing what you “should”.
- Instead of a demand to do something, stating the idea as a preference may be more helpful. “I prefer to clean my house on Saturday mornings, but sometimes that isn’t possible” is an accurate statement, that doesn’t leave you feeling inadequate.
- Similarly, you can substitute “I can” for “I should”. “I can go to the gym more often” is motivating. “I should go to the gym more often” tells you that you are not doing what you aresupposed to be doing.
- Finally, you might just want to figure out whether it is better to just accept your reality. “I shouldn’t be feeling angry” isn’t helpful when the reality is that you are. What might be more helpful is trying to figure out why you are feeling that way, so you can determine what you are going to do about it.
So, take care and try not to “should” on yourself.
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.