We all do it. We should ourselves, we should others and we don’t realise the damage we are causing with this tiny word. We also shouldn’t ourselves, which is equally detrimental (so from now on as I talk about the word should, please assume I am also referring to shouldn’t).
Can you think of some examples? Times you have should-ed yourself recently?
If not, here are a few that you may be able to relate to: We go to school or to work and think “I should work harder, I should be doing better, I should be top of the class/team”. We see an advert, picture or programme and think “I should look like that, I should be more fun/exciting/have a different life”. We go home and think “my house should be bigger/different/tidier”. Something distressing happens and we think “I should be able to cope”, “I shouldn’t be upset”, “I should be stronger”. We notice something different or new about ourselves and instead of exploring it we think “I should be more like everyone else”.
The problem of the shoulds
Why is the word should problematic? The dictionary definition is a good place to start:
Oxford English Dictionary definition of should: “Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticising someone’s actions.”
Note the word criticising. When we should ourselves we are implicitly criticising ourselves. Do you function better in situations where you feel criticised? It is unlikely that the answer to this is yes.
How does this affect us?
1. The shoulds actively get in the way of us achieving our goals
Shoulds are an active form of self-criticism. They suggest that we don’t accept who or where we are.
When we criticise and reject ourselves (even in such a subtle manner as when using the word should) we create anxiety and stress in our minds and bodies. What do we know about anxiety and stress? If you have been following my blog posts, you will know that they shut down our brains ability to problem solve and to maintain attention to a new task. They cause us to fall into old automatic patterns and habits (usually the ones we are criticising ourselves for engaging in), and more than that they cause a response inside us that urges us to run or fight (see this post for more information about the fight-or-flight response, and this post for the ways stress causes us automatically re-engage in our old unhelpful habits). No wonder people often ask my why they don’t seem to be able to to do the things they “know they should do”. I would suggest this is one of the main reasons.
Another adverse outcome of the shoulds? If you are anything like me you may also be rebellious. You may not even realise that you have a rebellious streak against yourself, but lots of us do. For example, if as a young person you refused to do the things pressed upon you by adults, it is possible that you now rebel against yourself whenever you pressurise yourself into an activity, even if it is supposedly good for you. You may not even notice that every should (even imposed by yourself) is met with an unconscious act of rebellion. The “yeah right, as if I am going to do it”.
2. The things we think we should do often don’t align with what we actually want.
When people come into therapy there is usually an overload of shoulds. Including, “I should be able to cope”, “I should already be (insert personally set expectation of self here)”. My response? “Why should you?”, “who told you you should?”, “where does that idea come from?”
When we unpick this, the answer is almost always the same. The idea of should came from ideas perpetuated in society.
Most of the time the idea of what we should do comes from a societal belief about the perfect person. I have written an entire article on this (click here to see post) but the summary of the points made there are as follows:
This perfect life and person doesn’t exist, yet is peddled on the front of every magazine cover, advert, tv programme, and social media page. In these images, people look a certain way and behave a certain way. They rarely have a hair out of place. They rarely waste their days sitting around in their pyjamas feeling tired or lost. They rarely struggle to get what seem like important tasks done. They rarely seem lost and confused about their life path, or even seem emotional.
Every time we see one of these images our brain internalises it as the visual representation of what it looks like to be ‘good enough’, ‘lovable’ and/or ‘successful’. Our brain then spends its days comparing us to this level of perfection.
Every time we feel we are falling short of that perfect benchmark the shoulds rear their annoying metaphorical heads. Suddenly, the thoughts include: “I should have more money”, “I should be thinner”, “I should be able to quit smoking”, “I should be at the gym”, “I shouldn’t feel like this”, “I should feel happy all the time” etc.
The irony is, the people who are paid to be in these shows or adverts have to be made up, airbrushed and photoshopped to reach the finalised look. On top of that, many of the people in the shows or magazines at some point in their lives (usually after they have recovered) divulge their own battles with insecurity, anxiety and/or mental un-wellness (emotions that were never shown in the media representation of their lives). Think of the list of celebrities who have recently opened up about their battles with depression for example. There are many of them.
So, our brain makes us think we should do things based on the idea of something that is unattainable. Something that isn’t real. Something that probably no-one has ever truly managed to achieve!
Once you realise this, you can then ask yourself… Do I agree with these ideas, these ideas about how a person needs to behave and look? Do I agree that only people who look and behave a certain way are good enough and deserve love? Do I want to live in a world where I live by those beliefs? Are there other ways to look at this? Is it possible that there are many ways that people achieve a life worth living, and that most people struggle at some point (it’s just that I don’t get to see this as the media thrive off my insecurity, as it means I will buy anything they try to sell me to ‘help me’ be more perfect).
When I talk to people about the source of the beliefs, then ask them about what they really believe and really want for themselves and others, there is usually a discrepancy between the two. Suddenly people realise that they have been striving for something they don’t necessarily want. What do you really want from life?
What can you do instead?
I know people will read this and think, but what about having a goal, shouldn’t we should ourselves to drive ourselves forwards?
There is nothing wrong with having a goal if it’s based on something you genuinely want for yourself. It’s great to have a focus to work towards and a metric to measure your progress against. However, when we should ourselves we undermine ourselves from the start. Instead of starting from a place of strength, comfort and empowerment (which almost certainly produces the best outcomes) we start from a place of less-than, a place of not good enough.
Goals are great. However, insecurity doesn’t motivate people in a sustainable way. To reiterate the above points, it creates anxiety (triggers the fight-or-flight response) and damages self-esteem. It may drive you in the short term but it can lead quickly to burn out and paralysis (where you feel unable to do any of the things you want to be able to do because the feeling of failure is so acute).
Think about how different your days would be if you felt like you were already pretty great as a human AND that there were things you could do to meet your additional needs in the future… Rather than starting the day feeling like you aren’t yet the worthy human you aspire to be?
One of the most simple techniques I suggest to people (and try to do myself) is:
- Notice when you use the word should — It’s even better if you can do this with someone else. When done with someone else you can help point out to each other when the word comes up.
- Question why you think you (or someone else) should do that thing.
- Question if that helps you feel good? If that idea fits with your beliefs and your values.
- Question if should-ing yourself has helped you achieve your goals in the past, or whether you can remember times where it has backfired.
- Try the sentence again, this time replace it with the word ‘could’, or ‘I want to’.
- Notice how that changes the sentence and what it means. Notice if this has any effect on how you feel.
The shoulds, a summary: They may not match what you really want for yourself or in your life. They are implicit self-criticism. They cause anxiety. They inhibit problem-solving. They cause you to want to run or fight. They may even make you a little rebellious (yes, even towards yourself!). MOST IMPORTANTLY, they actually get in the way of you progressing.
Having read this you now know that all you need to do is change one little word. Have a go. I think you will be surprised by how much change you can achieve through this. I also think it will be a much larger task than you expect as people rarely notice how often they use this word or how often others use it. Give it a go and let me know what you think.
I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get psychology out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my Blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online over video-link.
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Disclaimer: Please note, the information in these posts is not intended to be therapy and does not constitute a therapist/client relationship. If you are in need of support, please contact your doctor or mental health provider.
Originally published at drsoph.com.