Are you “shoulding” all over yourself?
By: Evelyn Ramirez, LPC
Do you often catch yourself saying “I should/shouldn’t have done that,” “I should/shouldn’t be doing that right now,” or maybe even “I should/shouldn’t feel that way”? Chances are you may have already caught yourself “shoulding yourself” today! The term “shoulding yourself” was coined by psychologist Clayton Barbeau to describe a cognitive distortion where individuals put pressure on themselves to do or be something based on what they perceive to be correct or preferred (Tagg, 1996).
Yes, there are times when “should” statements are appropriate as we all have responsibilities that must be taken care of. When used appropriately, “should” statements allow us to be productive by staying on track at school/work/home, attending to our basic needs such as eating and showering, and maintaining interpersonal relationships. “Shoulding yourself” can be a way of preventing us from being faced with negative consequences like missing a deadline at work, forgetting to brush our teeth in the morning, or getting into an argument with a loved one.
But what happens when “shoulding yourself” begins to impact the way we feel about ourselves? When “shoulding yourself” becomes self-critical automatic thoughts, they evolve into cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions can be described as biases or mental filters that oftentimes leave the individual feeling guilty, anxious, frustrated, or disappointed with themselves (Peter Grinspoon, 2022). Cognitive distortions can be consuming and feel real because we are accustomed to them. In the moment, we are not able to distinguish between rational and irrational thoughts, so we may begin to feel incapable, anxious, or worthless.
Experiencing statements such as “I should have accomplished more in life by now,” “I shouldn’t feel jealous,” or “I shouldn’t be so lazy” on a regular basis can be painful and defeating. Emotions such as guilt, anxiety, frustration, and disappointment are just a few that can be felt when we are “shoulding” ourselves. They are uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unwanted. We do not enjoy experiencing these emotions and may find ourselves ignoring the task, responsibilities, and emotions associated with the “should” statements which can intensify the unwanted emotions and negatively impact our self-worth. When we are not equipped with the skills to address the cognitive distortions, we may think poorly of ourselves, but when we develop effective skills to confront cognitive distortions we can differentiate between rational and irrational thoughts, manage our responsibilities, and begin accepting our emotions and ourselves as we are. After all, we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect, love, and reassurance and it can be especially empowering when we learn to treat ourselves that way instead of “shoulding” all over ourselves.
In counseling, I work with my clients to explore their thought processes and self-talk to identify cognitive distortions and work to challenge and reframe their thoughts/self-talk. Through psychoeducation, mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, and self-compassion clients can gain insight, work towards acceptance, and practice challenging cognitive distortions. Exploring their thought processes and self-talk can help clients recognize thought patterns that are limiting and irrational. Mindfulness empowers the client to redirect their attention from the cognitive distortions, move toward acceptance of their emotions, and view themselves as capable. Cognitive restructuring encourages the client to identify the cognitive distortions, determine what is true about the thoughts, and develop an alternative and more realistic thought to decrease unwanted emotions and behaviors associated with the distortion. Self-compassion encourages the client to respond to themselves with kindness, patience, and support rather than judgment and criticism such as “shoulding yourself.”
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Peter Grinspoon, M. (2022, May 4). How to recognize and tame your cognitive distortions. Retrieved from Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-recognize-and-tame-your-cognitive-distortions-202205042738
Tagg, J. (1996). Shoulding Yourself, Shoulding Others. Retrieved from Refelctions on Learning: https://www2.palomar.edu/users/jtagg/should.htm