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The Tyranny of the Shoulds

The word should is one of my least favorite words in the English language.

As a psychologist, I see firsthand the negative impact this word can have on one's emotional wellbeing. Shoulds inevitably give rise to guilt and shame when they’re used.

Take, for example, a day in which I have ten things I would like to do but only finish seven by day’s end. If I get into bed telling myself, "I should have completed all ten tasks," I am going to sleep with feelings of guilt and a high likelihood that I will wake up with continued self-criticism.

On the other hand, if I were instead to tell myself, "It would have been nice if I had done all ten tasks" or "I wish I had been able to complete my list in its entirety," I have now removed the self-critical component of the thought. While this linguistic change does not alter the fact that I still would have liked to complete all ten items, by changing my wording I am able to avoid getting trapped in the cycle of guilt and shame. That cycle keeps me paralyzed in the past. Instead I can now focus on how to adjust my schedule in order to complete the unfinished tasks.

While self-directed shoulds tend to cultivate feelings of guilt and shame, the shoulds directed at others also produce problems. They generally lead to tension and resentment within relationships. The belief that a spouse should know how to comfort you when you are having a bad day does not change the reality that he or she cannot read your mind. Instead, they may benefit from your ability to share what they might do to help you feel supported.

If we place our shoulds on others, we are no longer looking at the reality of the present situation but instead focusing our energy on unmet expectations and subsequent feelings of disappointment. There is significant benefit to a relationship in which a person can shift from the idea that "My loved ones should know what I need in this situation" to the thought that "I wish they inherently knew how to meet my needs but it seems as though I may need to provide some guidance."

The word should runs rampant in our self-talk, the inner dialogue that constantly occurs in our minds. While often undetected, it leaves us with negative feelings about others and ourselves. The first step in replacing the shoulds is to identify when they are occurring. Do they occur in the context of social comparison ("I should be able to afford all the things the Smiths have" or "I should be as happy as Jessica always looks in her pictures")? Do they tend to enter your mind when you fail to meet your own expectations ("I should have gone to the gym today" or "I should have acted differently in that social interaction")?

After you determine the presence of the shoulds, begin experimenting by replacing them with less guilt-ridden words or phrases. Use “it would have been nice if” or “I wish I would have.” Then pay attention to how your linguistic change shifts your emotions.

By shifting away from the shoulds, we are able to curb the self-criticism, acknowledge our inability to change the past, and remain focused on the present.

By Erica J. Clark, PsyD

A member of the Psych Well Group, Dr. Erica Clark is a Florida licensed clinical psychologist who works with children, adolescents and adults. See http://drericaclark.com<./p>

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