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Last Updated on November 5, 2022 by Randy Withers, LCMHC
It’s good to make plans. Plans give you a sense of direction and purpose. But because life is constantly changing, it’s also important to have a flexible mindset so that you can cope when things fall apart.
However, some people have a tendency to use “should statements” which may lead to guilt and frustration when circumstances are not in their favor. If you’re often using should statements, you might be dealing with a faulty thinking pattern.
What are Should Statements?
In psychology, should statements are a cognitive distortion or negative thinking pattern that fuels feelings of anxiety. Other cognitive distortions include black-or-white thinking, emotional reasoning, and mental filtering.
Studies show that these negative thought patterns are prominent in people who are depressed. However, it can also play a role in the development of anxious and depressive symptoms, as shown by a 2019 study that was done on adolescents aged 16-18 years.
You can spot someone using should statements by the way the person talks. For example, you might hear yourself or a friend say:
- I should arrive early for the interview.
- I should be more mindful of how I spend my time.
- I should overcome my fear of heights.
- I should lose weight by the end of the month.
Notice that these statements have good intentions behind them. What makes them problematic is how they’re expressed. Should statements can be unrealistic expectations that put unnecessary pressure on a person’s life. And when these goals aren’t met, you might think that you’ve failed.
How Can Should Statements Affect You?
Should statements and other cognitive distortions warp your perception of reality. They take a toll on your mental health and well-being.
Try this for example: Imagine yourself using should statements on a typical day. I should clean the house. I should complete my to-do list. My plumber set an appointment today, so he should show up. I should get dinner ready before 6:00 pm.
Is this stressing you out already?
Now, try to see what happens when you don’t follow through on what you set out to do. You weren’t able to clean the house because a friend who badly needed your help called. You completed only one thing on your to-do list. The plumber didn’t show up. You weren’t able to cook dinner at all and instead opted for takeout.
How would this make you feel? Frustrated? Lazy? Like a failure? Disappointed in others?
As you can tell, should statements fail to consider the fact that circumstances — and even people — change anytime. Should statements come off as strict rules that need to be followed.
How to Reframe Should Statements
Replacing should statements with more realistic and positive language starts with becoming aware of your own thought patterns. Learn to recognize and eliminate them from your life using the tips below.
1. Apply cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a proven treatment for various mental illnesses, including thinking errors. It helps us gain an understanding of how our thoughts, feelings, and actions are interrelated, as depicted by the CBT triangle.
The American Psychological Association mentions that CBT helps you to reevaluate wrong thoughts in light of reality. Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, states:
“Cognitive therapy seeks to alleviate psychological stresses by correcting faulty conceptions and self-signals. By correcting erroneous beliefs we can lower excessive reactions.”
In fact, CBT can be an effective tool for dealing with everyday stress through different techniques like relaxation and stress management.
2. Monitor your negative thoughts, feelings, and the situation that caused them.
Anytime negative feelings arise, take note of them, the automatic thought in your mind, and the situation that triggered that thought. This is a simple exercise that takes only 5-10 minutes to complete, and it will help you catch should statements so you can start changing them.
Unless you’re seeing a therapist who has provided you with a thought record, you can create your own using a blank sheet of paper or notebook. Include the following sections:
- Automatic thought
- Alternative helpful thought
Be sure to fill out these details, especially the alternate thought to reframe your should statement. For example, instead of “I SHOULD complete my to-do list” you can write, “I WOULD LIKE TO complete my to-do list.”
This alternative thought is more likely to encourage and motivate you. It expresses your desire to accomplish a goal, but at the same time acknowledges the possibility of change.
3. Reduce your anxiety using positive coping skills.
If you’re feeling anxious due to the demands you’ve placed on yourself, practice these coping strategies in addition to reframing your thoughts:
- Do breathing exercises. Spend a few minutes focusing only on your breathing. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Taking deep breaths for anxiety relief is based on science. It has been shown to slow down your heartbeat and promote full oxygen exchange.
- Encourage yourself through positive affirmations. Affirmations such as “I hold myself in a state of compassion” and “My goal is wisdom, not perfection” allow you to face life’s inevitabilities with a positive attitude.
- Schedule worry time. This technique involves assigning a specific time of the day for you to work through your anxious thoughts. Rather than dwelling on a negative thought the entire day (for example, not getting something done) put it off until later in the day — for example, 5:00 pm but not close to bedtime. By not dwelling on anxiety, you can stay productive and peaceful.
Should statements impact your mental health by making you feel as if you’ve accomplished nothing when things don’t go according to plan. Get rid of the “shoulds” by embracing the reality that life is not perfect.
“I will be patient with myself as I develop into the person I am meant to be. Being perfect is not the goal. Continuing to grow in a positive direction is the goal.” — Unknown
Furthermore, apply self-help cognitive behavioral therapy or see a therapist if you have trouble letting go of negative thinking despite having practiced the strategies in this article. With professional guidance, you might be able to understand yourself better and learn new skills to handle daily challenges.