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The Problem With “Should” Statements: Stop Beating Yourself Up With This One Mental Trick - By Tad Lusk, LPC

The Problem With “Should” Statements: Stop Beating Yourself Up With This One Mental Trick - By Tad Lusk, LPC

Words are powerful.

Think about the power written and spoken words have to share knowledge, spark insight, heal or hurt, inspire, motivate, or amuse. 

And of course there are the words you think. The words that drift through your thoughts have a powerful effect on your state of being and in many ways, create your reality. 

The words in your thoughts directly affect how you feel, which in turn affects your actions and how your reality unfolds.

Much of the time, you might be totally unaware of your thoughts, as so many thought processes are repetitive and automatic—like a record playing in the background.

And there is one word in particular that is so common that it causes problems for almost everyone.

“Should.”  

Why? When you tell yourself “should,” you’re placing judgment on yourself.

And why is this a problem? “Should” statements usually express unreasonable standards for ourselves and others.

When applied to self, this contributes to unhealthy levels of guilt, shame, regret, frustration, discouragement or hopelessness. It damages your relationship with yourself.

When applied to other people—i.e., when others don’t live up to your “should” or “shouldn’t” expectations—you can feel hurt, frustrated, resentful, and so on, and this can damage relationships with others.

Famed psychologist Albert Ellis referred to this mental habit of excessive or unreasonable shoulds as “musterbation.” Psychologist Clayton Barbeau called it “should-ing yourself.”

Crude puns aside, unhealthy or habitual “should-ing” usually leads to feeling stuck, frustrated or disappointed with no forward momentum. 

We assume that blaming ourselves with “should” or “shouldn’t be” or “should” or “shouldn’t have” will motivate & make us change–but it doesn’t. In fact, in often has the opposite effect.

So how to deal with this? If it’s a bad mental habit, how do we break out of it?

Here’s the trick:

Change the should to “could” or “would like to.”

If it’s a past “should have” or “shouldn’t have” state what you “would like to” do differently next time.

Check out these examples:

“I should be so much better at this by now.”

Alternative: “I would like to get better at this.”

“They shouldn’t have acted that way.”

Alternative: “They could have acted differently.” 

“I should exercise more.”

 Alternative: “I could exercise more. I would like to exercise more.”

“They should’ve responded sooner. They shouldn’t have left me hanging.”

Alternative: They could have responded sooner. Next time, I would like a quicker response.

Do you notice the differences? The alternatives have a less emotionally charged tone. Should statements simply blame, while the alternative statement acknowledges the reality that you want to be different and suggests a better way forward.

Generally, the alternatives are more encouraging or optimistic—more constructive.

“Could” or “would like to” leads to more neutral feelings, with less judgment. It’s more rational.

Bonus trick: Remind yourself, “there are no shoulds.”

This might sound strange, but when you’re saying “should” or “shouldn’t” whether aimed at yourself or others, you’re denying the present reality. The fact is, you ARE, they ARE, or it IS, regardless of what you prefer. Thinking something “should” be different is fruitless IF you’re not proposing a way to change it.

But when can acknowledge that something “could” be better or you “would like” it to be different, opens the door to thinking more constructively about how to change it, rather than just beating yourself up.

So see if you can start to recognize all the times you might be “should-ing.” You might be surprised at how common it is. Often, even if you’re not explicitly thinking “should” thoughts, there can be implicit “should” messages underlying your beliefs. If you find yourself feeling ashamed, down on yourself, or angry with others, these are often clues that there is a “should” belief operating somewhere.

When you catch your “shoulds” practice changing it to “could” or “would like to” and notice what changes. Notice what feels different.

So what’s ONE “should” statement you’ve been beating yourself up with and how can you state it differently?

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