Stop "Shoulding" Yourself

Have you ever had a moment when you wished you should, ought, or must have done something different? Or have you experienced this with others? It could look like:

“I should have done things right the first time.” or “She should know better than that!”

At times, we fall victim to unhealthy thinking styles. When biased thoughts permeate into our reality, we call them cognitive distortions. Most of the time however, these thinking patterns occur outside of our awareness. The thinking pattern based on “categorical imperatives” is called “shoulding.”

These phrases place everyone into a restrictive behavioral box. Inside of this very small box is the idea of “perfection.” Expressing to others what they “should have” done or “must have” done conveys your idea of what fits into your “perfection box.” The reality is, people have their own perfection “box”. When you or others do not meet these internal expectations, the consequence results in “shoulding” yourself. Striving for this perfection is usually about avoiding failure or making mistakes. These phrases reveal what you desire to experience or what you fear you will experience if your internal needs are not met. Consistently shaping your life around categorical imperatives can increase feelings of depression and anxiety and feelings of yourself or others not being enough. Usding these methods can make breaking free of this box is possible.

Practice Mindfulness

    Recognize when you feel negatively, upset or anxious and try thinking about it more expansively. Ask yourself:

“Is that what I really want?”

  • “Shoulds” might be the expectation that others might have of you. Grounding yourself by connecting to your inner self can help ease these feelings when they arise.
  • If it is something you really want, there is room for acceptance that makes it possible to achieve.

Play with Wording

    When you feel the need to express a “should, ought, or must” statement, try changing it to “I wish” or “I’d prefer.”

“You should have got me dinner too!”  you can say, “I wish you got me dinner also.”

“You must not smoke in the house!” you can say, “I’d prefer that you smoke outside.”

With this practice, fewer “shoulds”, “oughts”, and “must haves” will allow you to communicate your inner desires with more clarity. We use these words to communicate the overly high standards that we expect of ourselves and others. You can work on reducing this pattern on your own. Also, the psychotherapists at Pacific CBT can help you work on changing this automatic pattern.

About The Author

Rudairo Segbeaya is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Pacific CBT’s Office Manager. Rudairo received a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of San Francisco in 2018. In 2021, she later received a Master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University.