How “Shoulds” Can Ruin Your Day

Hi Everybody, Dr. Cox here. I wanted to take a minute here to discuss what is probably my favorite cognitive distortion: The Should Statement. In practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, much of the technique involves identifying and then modifying unhelpful or inaccurate thoughts. If you search online you will find many different lists of these prototypical distortions. My personal favorite list comes from the book Feeling Good by David Burns where he describes Should Statements as, “You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you have to be whipped or punished before you could be expected to do anything.” Should’s have a number of synonyms (Must, Ought, Supposed, Need) and you might relate to a few to of the thoughts below:

  • I’m supposed to go to the gym today
  • I shouldn’t be eating this desert
  • I have to get a better job and make more money
  • I need to get out of this relationship
  • I must get over those things that happened in the past

When addressing “shoulds” the frequent rebuttal that I will get from clients is, “aren’t Should Statements helpful? Don’t they provide a moral backstop or give you a jolt to live with in your values? Aren’t these statements pointing us towards a better or higher self?”

The difficulty with this thinking is that it puts an externalized or idealistic perspective in charge. The mind will likely hear these statements as well intentioned but they still feel like a command that you “MUST” engage in a certain action and you will not be “OK” until you do so. A problem here is that most people do not like to be controlled or told what to do. There can be an immediate visceral rebellion vs the demand. But if the issue is not addressed, the person stays in a sort of mental purgatory where they hear the should in their head but are fighting against the self-disrespect of mindless compliance.

But not to worry, there are techniques that will help you address these should statements. One of them is the simple act of changing the language behind the statement. This simple act can assert your own sense of autonomy and decision making. In modifying the language from the above statements, you may already feel how they are more congruent and grounding:

  • I’m going to the gym because I want the positive result.
  • I will be proud of myself if I refrain from eating this cake.
  • I can commit to a few hours next week to my job search.
  • I can learn how to productively address relationship problems.
  • Getting past this historical issue might take more care and attention than I had anticipated.

The new language of these statements still tell you the truth. If there is a struggle in your life then it is congruent and validating to affirm that it is indeed difficult. When we deliver a message to ourselves that not only do we have a problem but also that we should have addressed it years ago, we feel an extra level of pressure and agony that often deepens our despair. This can lead to hopelessness and procrastination. Changing the language not only acknowledges the problem but also presents you with the opportunity to find a realistic and practical way of moving forward. Addressing these challenges will probably not be easy (who doesn’t like cake?) but I believe you are more likely to succeed in acceptance of the issue and then look for incremental steps that can move you forward. If you want to take an excessively positive perspective, you can try to find the excitement and anticipation in resolution of these issues through your persistent efforts. Imagine how you would like to feel physically from consistent gym attendance, the first day of that new job or feeling close and connected to your partner again. For most people that might be a bit much, so instead they learn to focus on one small step at a time.

I hope you are well and “should” you want to have a free consultation regarding my psychotherapy services, please send me an email or give me a call at 619-414-0042.

All the Best, Dr. Chad Cox


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