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Stop Should-ing on Yourself

I’ll admit it. I talk to myself. You talk to yourself too. In fact, we are all constantly talking to ourselves as thoughts run through our mind all day. We are not even aware of all of the thoughts that arise, and that’s fine. It wouldn’t be adaptive to pay attention to all your thoughts (if we did, we wouldn’t get anything else done!).

However, our thoughts can impact how we feel and it is supremely important to pay attention to those thoughts that lead to unnecessary negative feelings.  One of the biggest offenders are the “shoulds”.

To understand how “should” thoughts can lead to negative feelings, let’s consider how we feel when others tell us what we should do.

When I was growing up, my well-intention father tried to guide me in the right direction by stating what I should do.. “You should take an accounting class.”  “You should wash your car more.”  “You should call your grandmother.”  Eventually, I said, “Dad, stop should-ing on me!”

Since then, he uses the phrase, “Kate, you might consider…” (but that still sounds like a should to me!).

We know how infuriating it is when other people should on us, but we should on ourselves all the time!  Should implies that we have no power to choose. We feel imposed upon us by someone else, and we can experience dread, shame, and self-criticism.

Those emotions do not move us closer to our goals. Thus, abandoning the shoulds will help you talk to yourself more effectively. Consider the following:

The Dreadful Should

  • Ineffective: Beverly, an overweight female, 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 change 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 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.”  Telling ourselves that we shouldn’t feel an emotion – any emotion – is akin to telling ourselves that we shouldn’t get wet after jumping into a pool. Telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel is a futile endeavor, so just drop that should.

The Critical Should

  • Ineffective: Ramona thinks, “I should keep my house spotless.”  As a child, Ramona remembered her mother cleaning for hours each day. Ramona works three jobs and is raising two children; thus, she often does not have time to vacuum her carpets as often as she tells herself she should. Thus, 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 comfortable 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!

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD