Shedding the Shoulds: Why & How to Stop “Should’ing” Yourself
The act of should’ing yourself comes in all flavors: “I should have accomplished this by now,” “I shouldn’t have done that,” “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” As the pandemic continues to upend our lives, thwarting plans and curtailing our usual strategies for daily functioning, the power, and frequency of these ‘should’ phrases have probably multiplied. “I should feel grateful,” “I should be exercising more,” “I should be finding new hobbies…” Any of these phrases sound familiar? Let’s call this your ‘should’ voice. It’s the nagging, punitive voice telling you what you should or shouldn’t be doing, feeling, or even thinking at any given moment.
You may believe this ‘should’ voice is a good thing– the voice of morality that will guide you into action in the right direction. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong! Occasionally, the ‘should’ voice will propel you to pay those bills, call your loved one, or pick up that long-forgotten book. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. More often than not, what happens when this ‘should’ voice kicks in is that, rather than getting us into gear, it generates feelings of guilt that ultimately hinder any action or change. That is, we become overburdened by the negative feelings associated with the ‘shoulds,’ to the point where our motivation and decision-making abilities become impaired.
Beyond inaction, the ‘should’ voice also obscures our true values and needs. We can think of the voice as an internalization of interactions we’ve had with outside forces over our lifetimes– caretakers, school systems, media consumption, peer influence, only to name a few. But as we grow older and more aware of our own system of values, we ideally become more adept at attending to our own needs and shedding the voices we disagree with. The process of shedding can be challenging, though, as ‘should’ing’ tends to be automatic and involuntary. To help you get started on “shedding the ‘shoulds,’” here are some pointers:
- Identify when the ‘should’ing’ is happening. The first step is to identify and acknowledge it in the moment. When you catch yourself thinking, “I should be…” pause and acknowledge it. There I go again, should’ing myself.
- Change the language. Language is powerful, and how we talk to ourselves matters. Substitute ‘should’ for “I would prefer if,” “I would like to,” “I feel pressure to,” etc. Taking away the ‘should’ takes away the punishable, shaming aspect of the thought. This change in linguistic choice will result in more accurate and powerful self-expression.
- Reflect on the value and/or need. Sometimes the ‘should’ voice concerns a real obligation that warrants attending to (Yes, you probably should get out of bed for that work meeting). But oftentimes, the ‘should’ thought is not pressing but instead nagging, blaming, and/or disputable. This means there is a function to this thought. It may be alerting you to a specific value or need of yours, shedding light on something important to you, and/or needs attention. Ask yourself, What is this ‘should’ thought alerting me to? What need/value is at the core of this?
- Instill agency. Once you have identified the underlying value and need, turn your language into one of choice. In that moment, you have a choice to follow the thought up with an actionable step OR to let it go. Either way, you have recognized your will and agency in the matter and made a choice that is in alignment with your values.
For example: “I should be working out more” → I value my health and would like to be more physically fit → I choose to set aside 20 minutes tomorrow morning to go on a run.
Or: “I should be working out more” → I recognize that I feel pressure to uphold a certain beauty ideal → I choose to let that go and will instead call my supportive friend.
Ready to take on your shoulds? You’ve got this!
Colier, Nancy. “Stop ‘Shoulding’ Yourself to Death.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 6 Apr. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201304/stop-shoulding-yourself-death-0.
Whalley, Matthew. “Cognitive Distortions: Unhelpful Thinking Habits.” Psychology Tools, 18 Mar. 2019, www.psychologytools.com/articles/unhelpful-thinking-styles-cognitive-distortions-in-cbt/.