Do you ever find yourself behaving in ways that deviate from social norms, traditions/values, or personal expectations? Have you ever felt disappointed in the outcome of a task or project and come down hard on yourself in spite of the time, effort, or money you put into it? One of the negative thoughts that we might have in these situations, are "shoulds"; as in, "I should have known", "I should have been more careful", etc. When these types of thoughts result in negative feelings and become habitual responses they can be trouble. Excessive and habitual shoulding on yourself is associated with the weakening of your confidence, indecisiveness, worry, and feelings of guilt, self-doubt, and fearfulness. If you are sensitive to feeling shame or grew up in an environment where shame was used to control behaviors, you might have a tendency to evaluate yourself and your performance using "should statements".
“Should statements” (also referred to as "must statements") refer to private thoughts we have to ourselves about past or present behaviors that we didn’t do, but should or ought to have. This is not the same as using “shoulds” in planning (eg “I have a free hour tomorrow; what should I do?” or, “I need help; who should I call?”). Psychologist Judith Beck described these thoughts as “precise, fixed ideas of how you or others should behave and you overestimate how bad it is that these expectations are not met.” Her example of an unhealthy use is: “It’s terrible that I made a mistake. I should always do my best.”
We learn some unhealthy thought patterns from observing others. Thought patterns can also develop as part of low self-esteem, or depression/anxiety symptoms that then become unhealthy habitual ways of thinking.
Next time you catch yourself using “should” statements, consider why you didn’t choose to behave/perform in an expected or desired way. For example, perhaps there were too many things going on at the time or other circumstances affected the outcomes beyond your control. Choose to exercise self-compassion and acceptance. Remember that errors happen, and more than likely the outcome that happened isn't literally "the end of the world." We all have room for learning, growth, and grace towards ourselves and one another.
Thank you for reading along! <3 Be well!
I look forward to my future posts this summer on perfectionism and high standards, which is related to should statements.
All blog posts from Dr. Soo Hoo are provided for educational and informational purposes only. As Dr. Soo Hoo is a licensed clinical and health psychologist, we must make it clear that nothing on the blog is intended to constitute medical or psychological advice, consultation, recommendation, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are concerned about your health, please seek appropriate care in your area.