Emotions & Cognition

The Should Monster: The Problem with “I Should”

The should monster: the problem with "I should" - cartoon of a purple monster

Who is the Should Monster? It’s that voice inside your head telling you what you should do to live up to expectations—your own expectations of yourself, as well as what you think that others (and the world in general) expect of you. Shoulds can consume a lot of mental energy, so let’s chat about them.

What shoulds are

According to Google Dictionary, “should” is “used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions,” for example when “indicating a desirable or expected state.”

Should is a very social verb (although for our purposes, I’m 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.

For all of us, there are things we want in life and things we need. Some of those needs might be indirect; we need a source of income not because we need money, but because money is required in order to have shelter and food. Wants might include pleasurable things like a hot fudge sundae, or more profound things that are in keeping with our values.

The Should Monster

The Should Monster isn’t interested in needs; he’s all about social expectations. I think this particular monster in the image above is a he, but that’s not especially important. Shouldy doesn’t help to propel you forward. When he’s not busy scratching his own rear end, as he appears to be doing in the graphic above, he’s got his finger claws digging into your back, and those pedicured toe claws are digging into your butt. Plus he’s snorting his nasty messages in your ear. He makes it harder to get anything done.

I’d say that’s probably the key defining feature of the Should Monster. Instead of giving you motivation to do things, he drags you down and makes it extra-difficult to do whatever he’s snorting in your ear that you should do. Psychologist Albert Ellis described cuddling up to Mr. Shouldy as musterbation, and shoulds are considered a type of cognitive distortion in cognitive behavioural therapy.

Social expectations

The shoulds that are associated with broader societal expectations are very hard to change; we can’t wave a magic wand and rejig our whole society. What we can change, though, is the extent to which we internalize those shoulds as fodder for the Should Monster. 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 what the Should Monster tells us. 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. 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.

We often start to judge ourselves based on those shoulds, concluding that we’re “not good enough.” That might be what the Should Monster wants you to think, but that “good enough” bar is entirely subjective.

Examples of common shoulds

Let’s have a look at some common shoulds, inspired by a post on Dr. David Burns’ Feeling Good site.


Should Monster: “You should be a better blogger, writer, pet parent, etc., etc.”

There will always be someone who’s better than you at all of those things, just like there will always be someone who’s worse. There are over 7.5 billion people in the world. Chances are that at least a billion of them are better than you at something, and at least a billion of them are worse than you at something. Tell Shouldy to go bug some of those people instead.


Should Monster: “You shouldn’t judge people.”

We judge people. That’s what our brains do. Whether you choose to take those judgments seriously is a whole other matter, but if you try to put the kibosh on the process altogether, you’re just going to end up being so focused on judging yourself for judging that you’ll lose sight of the fact that Shouldy is flexing his judgmental claws in your butt.


Should Monster: “You shouldn’t make mistakes.”

Give the Should Monster the middle finger by intentionally making a mistake right now. Like this tpyo. Bite me, Shouldy!


Should Monster: “You should find time to do more [X].”

There are a few options here. You could figure out a way to schedule [X] in over the next week so that you actually do it; you could decide that it’s low on the priority list, so it can sit on the back burner; or you could spend so much time snuggling with the Should Monster that not only do you not to [X], but you actually get less of other things done as well.


Should Monster: “You shouldn’t feel [X].”

All the while, the Should Monster is feeding you with a steady stream of feeling [X]. Suppression doesn’t work. The best way to get [X] to start dissipating is to kick Shouldy to the curb.


Should Monster: “Other people shouldn’t be so stupid.”

Maybe they shouldn’t be, but they are. You don’t need to look far to find plenty of proof of that. But unless Shouldy takes flight and starts sprinkling smart juice down over the world, you might be better off just accepting the stupid and working around it as best you can.


Should Monster: “People shouldn’t support this (or that) political candidate. They should see what a loser she (or he) is.”

This one is in quotes because it’s straight from Dr. Burns’ site, and I thought it was funny because Shouldy and I are enthusiastically doing the cha cha together on this one. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck because it is a duck, and yet some people choose to see a pterodactyl, that’s a bigger issue than the Should Monster.


Should Monster: “Partner shouldn’t be so [X].”

Perhaps partner shouldn’t be so [X], but maybe you shouldn’t be so [Y]. The Should Monster doesn’t have the skill set to help sort that out. It would be like asking me to build a house for you—not a pretty picture.


What’s the alternative?

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.

It can help to recognize that the Should Monster is in our heads and objective reality is what’s going on outside our heads. CBT involves looking for objective evidence to support what Shouldy is saying. This is the kind of evidence that an outside observer would be able to see and acknowledge.

Shoulding often revolves around extremes like “always” and “never”, which are also a form of cognitive distortion. Real life is seldom that black and white, so try to deliberately look for the grey area.

The Should Monster may tell you that must do something right now, but if you take a longer view, will it matter a year from now whether or not you do what Shouldy is telling you to do today?

We all screw up. We all fail. Consider that when the should nunchucks are flying, you may end up missing opportunities for learning and growth. Self-flagellation is a lot less productive than the Should Monster would have you believe that it is.

Go away, Shouldy!

My own key defences against the Should Monster are my independence and stubbornness. I quite actively fight it when other people tell me what I Should do, and it seems to translate pretty well to keeping Shouldy subdued. It’s my party and I’ll be judgy if I want to. 🤪

Do you have any Should Monster repellant strategies that you use?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Fundamentals mini-ebook

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

49 thoughts on “The Should Monster: The Problem with “I Should””

  1. I always know I should get more exercise, but I never feel well. It’s a dilemma. I try not to be too hard on myself over it. As far as other stuff, if I do my work and pay my bills, everything else is extra. I TRY not to get mad at myself for not writing more or cooking from scratch etc.

  2. Sometimes it is hard for me to know if something is a random should or something really important. Sometimes important things seem beyond my power.

  3. I think I have every should monster in the book. Having a hard time breaking free because my mind tells me what I think is TRUE. Such a vicious cycle.

      1. Thanks. I feel partially there; the differnce between knowing and doing. At least I have the knowing part down, now to take action.

  4. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck because it is a duck, and some people choose to see a pterodactyl, that’s a bigger issue than the Should Monster.”

    LOL. It really is, it’s very concerning!

    “musterbation”

    I love this term! I had actually already pictured something along those lines from the preceding 2 paragraphs, because of the similarity in how you can automatically fallback to either kind of thoughts when you need to get stuff done and how it’s generally not constructive.

    “My own key defences against the Should Monster are my independence and stubbornness. I quite actively fight it when other people tell me what I Should do, and it seems to translate pretty well to the Should Monster.”

    This is a great point, thanks! This is actually how it felt on days when I’ve been able to monitor anxious impulses from ‘without’ and not react to them. I will remind myself of this!

      1. Even sadder is they won’t know themselves if you asked them, nor even what a pterodactyl is! They won’t know why they’re doing a particular thing at any given moment 🤦‍♂️. A generalisation of course, but that’s definitely something I observe!

        I’m kind of at the extreme end of somebody who doesn’t really fall into unthinking habits, or at least to a minimal amount, and constantly update the ways I do things when some new logical rationale occurs to me. So it’s very obvious and baffling when I notice people doing things a certain way purely out of habit 😆. I’ve seen it in my family a LOT.

        I mean having said that, I probably do just as much of it at least mentally. But also there, I constantly question I guess.

        Sorry, little side-essay!

        1. It makes a diffeerence to be willing to change habits should new information come along, as opposed to just ignoring new information entirely.

  5. Me and the should monster have been at war lately.
    “You should be a better mom”
    ” You shouldn’t have blown up your marriage because your oldest was unhappy and scared of her stepfather”
    ” you should have blown up that marriage sooner.Your child suffered. why are you crying? You should be a better Mother”

    On. A. Loop.

    1. Wow, talk about being tough on yourself. 🙁 Remember, just because the Should Monster is whispering something to you doesn’t mean he’s right! Please remember you probably did the best you could at the time.

  6. Love your examples, especially when you point out that the Should Monster doesn’t have the skills to sort out the important issues. In my opinion, that’s where empathy (and utilizing our strengths) come in.

  7. My own defense against the should monster is merely to realize it’s there, whispering it’s vile poison in my ear. Then to deliberately change the tune to something that doesn’t include “should” in it. Pick another word or figure out why I think I SHOULD do this or SHOULD NOT do that. It’s tough.

  8. Ha ha! I love your humorous take on this. Should hangs out at my place with his gang of Could and Would all the dang time. I kick them out but they’re in the backyard chilling when I get home. They’re the friends I hate to love. That said their existence in my life can be quite serious and stressful so I really appreciate your take on…it. 😉 And I love your bit about “if it walks like a duck…” I shouldn’t say more. 😉

    What do I do about Should? Well other than give him way too much attention I try to act on something. A lot of my “shoulds” are things that I will/would benefit from were I to get them done. For me the issue with “should” is that it almost acts as a stand in for actually getting the thing done. Instead of get it done I’ll ruminate on it LATER – Should’a, Would’a, Could’a.

    Indecision is their cousin who works with them against me. “I should do X” but then “I should also do Y and Z and A and N and oh shoot I forgot I HAVE to do L”.

    So my best defense is to just DO SOMETHING.

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