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October 31, 2021
Stop Shoulding All Over Yourself

Kendra Casey

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Navigating Those "I Should" Thoughts Will Lead To Learning Experiences

I should have done better.
I should go on a diet.
I should not have said that.
I should stop binging Netflix and go to bed.

Do any of these sound familiar to you? When you Google the definition of should there is a long list of definitions that arise. The first being “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone's actions.” I should have done better on this. I should not have said that. The second being “indicating a desirable or expected state.” I should go on a diet. Another definition is “used to give or ask advice or suggestions.” I should stop binging Netflix and go to bed. Although these definitions are in the context of interacting with others, you can see how we often use should to speak to ourselves.

Should can be used to keep ourselves healthy and wholesome by advising ourselves to recharge, rest or reach out to connect with others. One could agree that the use of should is based on an individual’s core values or beliefs. These core values stem from how we were raised in our family environments, impactful experiences – distressing or triumphant – or plainly, society’s culture or social norms – all of which make up who we are as individuals.  If you were taught to hold doors open for other people, then your thoughts would reflect how you should be doing this action. If you were taught to not share your emotions with others, your thoughts would be about how you should not be open with your partner about how you’re feeling.  This shows how powerful should is. It can dictate the choices we make, how we react to situations, and the motivations we have in life. Issues arise when the dictation is getting you stuck in a toxic negative thinking pattern.

Unfortunately, many things in our society and social norms create adverse thought cycles. An example of this is society’s beauty standards seen in social media and other media. The thought of “I should be that skinny, that curvaceous or that popular” can arise after one scroll-through Instagram. Our shoulds can switch rapidly from things we can do to keep ourselves wholesome to things we can do to arise to unrealistic standards. Reflecting on the first definition listed for should, the criticism stated turns towards ourselves and so do the negative thought cycles.

The power of should is not unknown

Distorted thinking patterns detailed in Aaron Beck’s version of cognitive behavioural therapy, lists should as a distorted thinking pattern. Distorted thinking patterns, also known as cognitive distortions, are described as irrational or exaggerated pattern of thought that distorts one’s perception of their reality. Cognitive distortions can be very impactful on an individual. Say if one thinks badly about themselves, then they believe they are a bad person and will engage with the world accordingly. There are many different identified cognitive distortions ranging from mental filtering to thinking in black and white. These thought patterns are extremely common for everyone. People often just do not notice the pattern without it being pointed out to them. Meta-thinking (thinking about your thoughts) is a core therapeutic concept in cognitive behavioural therapy and is the first step to freeing yourself of these negative thought patterns. Cognitive distortions can show special insight into your core values and beliefs. In the case of should, we can determine where our standards lie and where the root of beliefs come from. If we use our shoulds to criticize our appearance, we can ask ourselves – where did that belief come from? Was it from an experience I had or from a societal ideal? Was it my voice or another’s criticizing me?  

Sometimes we use should to regret things we’ve done in the past. Our brains replay a memory and point out all the things we should have done. It can get to the point of replaying the event over and over in your mind with the accompanying regret, shame or guilt many feel.

The thought of ‘I should have done that differently’ - can be an opportunity to explore the emotions around your regrets and learn from the experience

How do I feel about the scenario?  If they are emotions reflecting how you feel about yourself, substitute compassion for the shame. You can do this by asking more questions such as:

  1. Change should into could - what was the best case and the worst case scenario that could have happened?
  2. What did I do right in the situation?
  3. What did I learn from this experience?
  4. What does this situation say about me as a person?
  5. If this happened to a loved one how would I view the situation?

Author, George Orwell once wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” As we have learned, should can be a powerful, yet hidden foe. However, this foe can challenge you by opening up an opportunity to self-reflect and change some thought patterns that may be influencing you negatively.

As you finish this blog post, take a moment to reflect - what are some of your "shoulds"?

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