Stop “Shoulding” Yourself

“Must,” “Ought,” “Should,” “Shouldn’t,” “Have to,” “Can’t”

We hear and say these words every day with little or no awareness of the powerful effect they have on our feelings and behaviors. This type of demand thinking misrepresents reality and results in feelings of hopelessness and loss of control. Thinking that the world MUST or SHOULD or OUGHT to be a certain way involves drawing conclusions that are not based on reality. Just as thinking that we “have to” or “can’t” makes us a victim rather than creator of our circumstance.  Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), suggested that the demands we place on ourselves, others, and the world are the core of our problem. It’s an interesting concept. The power of words. We know the old saying about “sticks and stones” has its flaws and that name calling, insults, threats etc. can hurt us. However; that concept has never crossed my mind when thoughts like “I should have gone to that meeting” or “I can’t get everything done today” fly around in my head. Let’s take a closer look at this….

Musterbating and Shoulding 

What makes this type of thinking problematic, is the irrational and unrealistic nature of these words. When we believe our ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds,’ the demands they imply set expectations, many of which are unrealistic. When these expectations are not met, we may experience anger, frustration, anxiety, disappointment and low self-worth. “All people should be nice,” “I should be perfect,” “I must be like by everyone,” “things ought to work out for the best,” “the world should be fair.” When we use this type of thinking- rather than drawing conclusions based on the way the world IS, we draw conclusions based on our assumptions about how we think the world OUGHT to be. But when you think about it…. Why ‘should’ or ‘ought’ it be that way? According to Dr. Ellis, “life is random- sometimes unfair, sometimes difficult and frustrating- and that’s just how it is.” Yelling and cursing while standing in line because “it shouldn’t take so long, “only manages to ruin our mood and raise our stress level.

Have to and Can’t 

“Have to,” and “Can’t.” Two of the most victimizing words in the English language. “I have to go to work, “I can’t go to the birthday party.” How many times have you said or heard these words? My guess is… A LOT. This type of thinking is an inaccurate reflection of reality. These words rob us of our control and make us victims of circumstance. When in actuality, we usually have a lot more control then we admit. There are only a handful of things in life that you HAVE to do, everything else is a choice. We tend to be motivated by rewards and consequences and make choices based on the perceived outcomes. I don’t HAVE to go to work; I CHOOSE to go to work- because I prefer to avoid the consequence of being unable to support my family if I choose not to go to work. No one is physically throwing me in my office and forcing me to work. The word “can’t” has a similar connotation. Although there are things in life that I literally can not do, most things I simply choose or prefer not to do. I COULD go to that birthday party. There is nothing physically stopping me, but I choose not to- because I prefer to avoid the guilt educed call from Aunt Mary if I choose not to attend. It’s not that “I can’t be late,” because I CAN be late (and I have proven my ability to do so many times over)…it’s that I would prefer to be on time. 

So now what? How do we change this way of thinking? 

1. First thing first. The first step in changing these irrational patterns of thinking is AWARENESS. Listen to the words you use and attempt to catch yourself (and others) using words like “should,” “shouldn’t,” “have to,” “ought to,” “supposed to,” “can’t” etc. 

2. Once you’ve become more self-aware. The next step is to consciously and deliberately thought stop and replace inflexible demand thinking with more realistic PREFERENCE thinking. Intentionally replacing our thoughts with words like “I’d prefer if people liked me” or “I’m choosing to cook dinner.” 

3. The last step involves repeating steps 1 and 2 over and over…and over and over…and over again until we have new hardwired thinking that respects and has unconditional acceptance of ourselves, others and the world. 

You CAN do it, if you choose to. Good Luck!

Debi Mattocks