MH@H Mental Health

Shoulding Ourselves to Death

The Should Monster: a purple monster with wings weighing you down with "shoulds"

I saw a post on the topic of shoulding recently on another blogger’s site and wanted to continue the conversation.

The word should can have several meanings, but the most relevant here is the one from Google dictionary, which Grounding Growth also referenced.

“used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions

  • indicating a desirable or expected state
  • used to give or ask advice or suggestions
  • used to give advice”

Should is a very social verb (although for our purposes I’m mostly going to use it as both verb and noun).  If I’m living in a cave in the middle of nowhere, shoulds become irrelevant; there are no shoulds in isolation.  Survival comes down to what we must and must not do.  Should starts to muddy things up when it comes to social norms, and comparisons between what’s deemed acceptable/desirable and unacceptable/undesirable.

Social expectations

The shoulds associated with broader societal expectations are very hard to change.  What we can change, though, is the extent to which we internalize those shoulds.  We may not be able to change how others view us if we violate those shoulds, but we can control the extent to which we judge ourselves based on adherence to shoulds.  There’s something very freeing about being able to just not give a crap what other people expect, although of course that’s easier said than done.  I tend to do this by just not liking most people, although that’s probably not all that healthy either.

When it comes to smaller social groups, it could potentially be easier to nudge certain shoulds in a different direction.  There’s also the possibility of leaving the social group, and while this may be quite difficult, there is still some element of control.

Shoulds we impose on ourselves

In many cases, externally imposed shoulds pale in comparison to the shoulds we heap upon ourselves.  These may be external shoulds that have become more extreme through the lens of mental illness, or they may be shoulds we’ve cooked up all on our own.  These shoulds are likely to influence overall self-evaluation, forming connections that really should be there in the first place.

I didn’t do X like I should have, and that makes me not good enough.  Except if we were to take a step back, a more reasonable conclusion would be I wanted to do X this way, but I didn’t/couldn’t.  End of story.  That “not good enough” is a judgment attached to the should that’s not inherent in the situation in any objective manner.  And really, anytime we’re talking shoulds, we’re talking about judgments.

What’s the alternative?

What, then, is the alternative to shoulds?  Well, shoulds are in our head and objective reality is what’s going on outside our heads, so a good place to start is looking for objective evidence to support our ideas, the kind of evidence that an outside observer would be able to see and acknowledge.  This is one of the areas that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) hones in on.

Shoulds often revolve around extremes like “always” and “never”, another form of what CBT would consider cognitive distortions.  Real life is seldom that black and white, so try to look for the grey area.

Or to take a mindfulness perspective, when we ground ourselves in the present moment, the shoulds start to slip away and leave behind just being.

We all screw up.  We all fail. It’s part of being human, and something that allows us to learn.  If you’re too busy beating yourself up with your should nunchucks, you may end up missing those opportunities for learning and growth.

A crucial first step in challenging the should monster is to recognize how often you’re using them.  And trust me, you’re probably using them A LOT.  So pay attention to your inner dialogue, or the things you’re writing down in your journal.  Work on having a finely tuned should radar so they don’t regularly slide by unnoticed.

You are more than your shoulds.  So stop shoulding all over yourself and get on with living the best life you can.

CBT Fundamentals mini-ebook from Mental Health @ Home

The CBT Fundamentals mini-ebook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to cognitive behavioural therapy concepts along with workbook exercises.

17 thoughts on “Shoulding Ourselves to Death”

  1. I’ve heard this lots of times in the past. I always struggle to believe it. Maybe it’s because I’m religious? I feel there really are lots of things I should do that are non-negotiable, even though they aren’t musts inasmuch as I won’t die from not doing them. I should meet my religious obligations more (admittedly I could probably be less strict on myself about assessing depression/social anxiety/autism-induced can’ts there). I should not have procrastinated today instead of applying for a job. Because I don’t think I should procrastinate. I don’t really get this one.

    1. I’ve rewritten this comment a few times as I try to figure out what to say. Let’s take the applying for a job. Today you procrastinated. You could take the approach that today was just one day, and you need to come up with an action plan for the rest of the week to move you towards that goal. I’d consider problematic “shoulding” to be along the lines of beating yourself up and considering yourself to be a failure because of not doing a particular thing on one particular day. I’d say goals/values look/move forward, and shoulds keep people stuck.

      1. I just started working on the thing I’m writing for your book and, doing that after reading this, I realise how much my “shoulds” are driven by autism spectrum disorder, that I should make eye contact and I should have open body language and I shouldn’t stim and I should socialise even when I don’t want to and I should know how to have a conversation and I shouldn’t have to ask for help with basic everyday tasks. That’s actually quite scary.

  2. That is so interesting. Should!! I “should” myself a lot. “I should’ve known. I should’ve been smarter. I should’ve foreseen that–it was so obvious. I should’ve prevented it. I should’ve been less clueless.” And your peer pressure comments are insightful as well. “Oh no! What if no one agrees with me, and maybe I shouldn’t have said anything!” I can so totally relate to that, and now it’s got me thinking. Great post!!

  3. This is not the first time you’ve spam-commented my site by link-dropping, and I am blacklisting you. On the off chance you’re not aware, this is very poor blogging etiquette.

  4. I’m a master with the “should nunchucks,” so this post really resonated with me. In my case, it almost always comes as comparing myself to others, and what they have achieved and I haven’t yet. “I should have done this and that, like this person.” Very good thoughts on this subject, I enjoyed the read!

  5. I’ve recently discovered the author Brené Brown, and your post mirrors quite a bit of what she writes about. There’s a ton of shame in “should,” and I think people who have a mental illness are even more prone to shame because of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

    We are made to believe taking medicine is shameful; we should just be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

    We are made to believe seeing a therapist is shameful; we shouldn’t need to use other people to solve our problems. Even people without mental illnesses can benefit from therapy, but there’re still so many negative feelings about seeking professional help.

    Sometimes if you are religious, it’s even worse. You should be able to pray yourself to good mental health and well-being. People don’t understand it’s a matter of brain chemistry, and nobody can consciously change that on their own.

    Again, great post.

  6. Excellent post, Ashley. I use to constantly beat myself up over the “Shoulds” throughout most of my life. The guilt and shame for not fulfilling the “Shoulds” was overwhelming and did cause a great deal of anxiety.
    I try to maintain reasonably attainable “Shoulds” now, ones that don’t lead me to utter disappointment in myself.

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