Stop Should-ing Yourself

I’ll admit it: I talk to myself. You talk to yourself, too. In fact, we’re all constantly talking to ourselves as thoughts runs through our minds. We’re not even aware of all our thoughts, and that’s fine – if you paid attention to each and every thought, you’d never get anything else done. Still, our thoughts can impact how we feel, and it’s important to pay attention to thoughts that lead to unnecessary distress. One of the biggest offenders? The “Shoulds.”


Let’s consider how we feel when others tell us what we should do. When I was growing up, my well-intentioned father tried to guide me in the right direction by saying: “You should take an accounting class;” “You should wash your car each week;” “You should call your grandmother more often.” Eventually I said, “Dad, stop should-ing on me!” Since then, he has switched to, “Kate, you might consider…” (still sounds like should to me!). And yet: I may have been infuriated every time my father said I should do something, but I should-ed myself all the time. Most of us do. Some of these shoulds come from messages we received as children, while others are purely self-imposed rules. Should-ing on ourselves can create feelings of dread, shame and self-criticism. Those emotions do not move us closer to our goals. Abandoning the shoulds will help you talk to yourself more effectively.


Here are the types of shoulds we should try to leave behind and how we might do so:


The Dreadful Should

  • Ineffective: Beverly, an overweight woman, tells herself, “I should exercise.” She abhors exercise and feels resentful about exercising. Her should-ing further heightens her sense of dread, and she continues to put it off.
  • Effective: Beverly tells herself, “I want to lose weight, and exercise will help me feel more limber and shed these pounds. Therefore, I could exercise to reap those benefits.” The slight switch from should to could changes the whole tone of this self-talk, and she feels much more settled with the prospect of exercising.

The Shameful Should

  • Ineffective: After a break-up, Jon tells himself, “I shouldn’t feel sad.” Jon grew up learning that “real men” don’t experience negative emotions, especially sadness. By telling himself that he shouldn’t be feeling his emotion, Jon now has two negative emotions: He feels sad, and he feels ashamed of feeling sad.
  • Effective: Jon says, “I feel sad about breaking up with my girlfriend, and it’s understandable that I would feel this way.” Believing that you will not experience emotions is akin to walking around in a snowstorm naked and expecting not to feel cold. Drop the should, let go of the shame, and accept the temporary state of sadness.

The Critical Should

  • Ineffective: Ramona thinks, “I should keep my house spotless.” As a child, Ramona remembered her mother cleaning for hours daily. Ramona works three jobs and is raising two children; she does not have time to vacuum as often as she tells herself she should. Because of this, she feels defeated.
  • Effective: Ramona thinks, “I keep my home as clean as possible, given the time that I want to dedicate to that task. I could keep my house spotless, but then I would not get to spend as much time with my children.” Again, changing from should to could leaves Ramona feeling empowered rather than criticized.

Are you ready to stop should-ing on yourself? Pay attention to the words you choose – a slight change can make all the difference.


Added to Mental Health, Wellness on Mon 11/14/2011