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I don’t like using the word “should”. If I hear someone say, “should,” it immediately raises a yellow flag for me to pause and examine what the person is really saying. We interact with many people that use the word “should” to talk about their lives and goals every day. When we hear someone use the word “should”, I believe that we need to learn to have the same pause for other people as well.

What’s Wrong with Should?

The problem with “should” is that it indicates a lack of satisfaction with whatever we are saying. For example, “I should be able to exercise more,” or, “I should be able to control my thoughts,” or, “I shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think.” While all of these things might be true (often they are not), they demonstrate a negative pattern of thinking that leaves us feeling inadequate or unable to obtain a better version of ourselves.

Whenever we use “should” in conversation, it marks that we could be thinking differently about our circumstances. Over time, the weight of all the should statements in our lives can lead to depression or anxiety because of a failure to succeed in certain ways. Often, this pressure isn’t even from ourselves. The should statements might have been messages we internalized over time from family, friends, teachers, bosses, etc. that we should be more of something or that we should be doing more.

Getting Over Should

So how do we stop using “should” so much? The first thing is to bring awareness to the should narratives in our lives. When we hear ourselves saying, “should,” we can choose to pause and examine what happened to get us to this point. What do believe is lacking that we feel the need to say, “should?” Where did we learn that we “should” want that for ourselves? Is that thought something we actually want for ourselves? If so, why isn’t it a part of our lives now?

For example, saying, “I should study more,” implies that you are currently not trying hard enough in school. We use grades to measure whether we are actually studying enough, so if you have a 4.0 GPA, it is unlikely that you truly need to study more. Instead, you can examine why you feel like you have a perfect GPA but could be doing more. Is that pressure you put on yourself? Is it an unmet expectation from someone else? Do you have to take comprehensive exams that require high amounts of studying regardless of your GPA?

Once you answer these questions, you may realize that you are studying enough, but you feel guilty for another reason. When that is the case, you have a choice to accept that you are doing enough or continue to put pressure on yourself to do more. If you choose to accept that you are doing enough, you can gently remind yourself of this fact whenever you feel guilty for taking time for yourself instead of studying. Over time, you will begin to feel more calm and in control of the decisions you make because you know they are the right decisions for yourself.

Deciding What Serves Us Well

On occasion, we may realize that the pressure we feel is from external sources. When this happens, we have to decide whether this is pressure we want to take on for ourselves. You may choose to listen to your doctor when they tell you to exercise more, but you might not listen to your cousin’s best friend that tells you that you should buy “x” product. You have the ability to know yourself and your values well enough to know when you do not need to listen to either internal or external negative voices

If you are having difficulty identifying negative voices for yourself, a therapist can help you with the process. They can show you when you are using “should” statements and help you decide whether to take action on those statements. They can also help you identify your values or critical inner voice. If you would like to change the amount of power “should” has in your life, call us today!

Written by therapist Elise Champanhet

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